Converting Useless Land To Productive Property

For more than a decade, the 160-acre Crazy Horse Sanitary Landfill was a repository of some pretty icky stuff. So much rubber, oil and solvents were dumped on the property five miles outside Salinas that it was declared a Superfund site and closed to the public in 2009.

More than 500 miles to the southeast is the infamous Stringfellow landfill in Riverside County, where 34 million gallons of acid, solvent, heavy metal and pesticide-manufacturing byproducts were dumped over 17 acres from 1956 to 1972. In 1983, it achieved the dubious distinction of California's most serious hazardous waste site, and today contains not one, not two but three groundwater extraction and treatment systems operated by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

It's too bad those properties are so polluted that they can't be put to good use. Or can they? In an intriguing study, the federal government is assessing the possibility of developing renewable-energy sources, including wind and solar power, on those sites and 24 others. A total of five contaminated or potentially contaminated sites totaling almost 29,000 acres in California are being reviewed.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy are evaluating Superfund, brownfields, former landfill or mining sites and even former gas stations through the new "Re-Powering America's Land Initiative."

It is hoped that some of the blighted property could be used to generate solar, wind, biomass or geothermal power. "These studies are the first step to transforming these sites from eyesores today to community assets tomorrow," Mathy Stanislaus, an EPA assistant administrator said.

Here's a link to the original press release, and one to a list of sites being studied.

This isn't a new idea. Restoration of brownfields is a serious mission of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has restored sites to commercial use. But using them as power sources is not as common, although a six-megawatt solar array powers the restoration of an Aerojet General Corporation Superfund dump near Sacramento. And in Chicago, the Exelon City Solar facility - built on an abandoned commercial site called a "brownfield" - is the largest urban solar power plant in the United States.

The Superfund toxic landfills are pretty horrible. The environmental protection regulators call them "the most complex, uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous waste sites identified by the EPA for cleanup." Brownfields aren't much better: "They are properties at which expansion, redevelopment, or reuse may be complicated by the presence of contaminants."

Double Ick.

But toxic sites can be ideal for clean energy. "They often can leverage existing utility infrastructure, and this redevelopment may be allowed under existing zoning, " federal officials said in a news release.

The former Fort Ord military base in Marina is the largest side being assessed in California. The most remote is 253 acres in tiny Alpine County. The former open-pit sulfur mine is at 7,000 feet elevation on the eastern flank of the Sierra Nevada.

This really is a great idea. California has one of the most ambitious renewable-power mandates in the nation, and targeting tainted soil that can't be used for anything else toward that effort makes sense.

Video by State Department of Toxic Substances Control