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Sunrise Landfill repaired, reinforced against future storms

The crest of Sunrise Landfill offers a sweeping panorama of the Las Vegas Valley, but Tuesday’s gathering on this plateau of buried garbage had nothing to do with the view.

Federal officials and local contractors met at the old dump site to mark the end of a long and expensive effort to keep all that trash right where it is.

For 40 years, Sunrise Landfill served as the final resting place for the valley’s trash. By the time the dump closed in 1993, roughly 18 million tons of garbage was entombed there.

Then on Sept. 11, 1998, a flood of stormwater ripped a hole in the landfill’s cap, sending roughly 100,000 cubic yards of garbage into the Las Vegas Wash below.

Fifteen years and $60 million later, officials now think they have secured the old dump against future leaks.

Improvements include a three-mile network of concrete storm channels, six miles of reinforced berms, and a dam and basin at the top of the canyon capable of handling the sort of massive storm that strikes only once every 500 years on average.

“If a 500-year event happens in the Las Vegas area, this (landfill) will probably be the least of your worries,” said Mark Bergeon from Golder Associates, the engineering firm that created the final design for the project.

It was a so-called 200-year storm that caused the 1998 flood, when roughly 4 inches of rain poured down in just six hours.

The 440-acre landfill was built into a canyon along the slope of Frenchman Mountain, at the east end of Vegas Valley Drive.

The improvements were finished last week, clearing the way for the Bureau of Land Management to transfer ownership of the property to Clark County in the coming months.

Just don’t expect to see a new housing tract built there anytime soon, despite the million-dollar views.

Todd Whittle, area environmental manager for Republic Services, said the private trash contractor has agreed to monitor and maintain Sunrise Landfill for at least the next 30 years.

In the meantime, he said, “there’s no reason you couldn’t put some solar (collectors) up here. Again, if Clark County wanted to go that route.”

Whittle acknowledged there were problems with the way the previous operator, Silver State Disposal Service Inc., capped the dump after it closed. Republic Services assumed responsibility for that when it bought Silver State in 1997, the year before the flood.

The incident sparked a flurry of litigation over how problems with the dump should be fixed and who should pay for them. Design work finally got under way about five years ago, and construction at the landfill got under way in September 2011.

“The main goal was don’t let a storm do it again. Everything was stormwater related,” said Danny Fitzgerald, construction manager for Las Vegas Paving, the contractor on the job.

In addition to the dam and storm channels, workers covered the entire 800-acre site with a new cap made from dirt and rock designed to allow rainwater to soak into the ground a certain distance and evaporate without eroding the surface away. In the process, they upgraded the system for bleeding off and safely burning methane gas that builds up underground as trash decomposes, Fitzgerald said.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency planned the landfill improvements, and Republic Services paid for them.

Now that the site is protected against floods, Clark County could assume ownership of the 800 acres basically free of charge later this year, said Mike Moran, environmental protection specialist for the Bureau of Land Management.

Contact reporter Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350.

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