Invisible ‘Bird Killer’ Lurks in Revitalized New Jersey Meadowlands

By Rick Rojas- April 26, 2017 (New York Times)

NORTH ARLINGTON, N.J. — From some vantages along the rolling meadow, the gleaming Manhattan skyline can be seen clearly in the distance, rising above the tall grass, beyond the water, roadways and fixtures of industry that dot the New Jersey horizon. But on a bright and tranquil Sunday morning, all of that feels almost a world away.

Don Torino has spent much of his life around here, and he has watched as this stretch of the New Jersey Meadowlands has been transformed from a wasteland that sometimes forced residents to pinch their noses into something of a natural treasure. He pointed out the different species of birds — a northern harrier and an American kestrel, among them — that called out and swooped through the air as evidence of that evolution.

“Unfortunately,” Mr. Torino said, “you have a bird killer in the middle of it.”

He walked over to a pipe that emerged from one of the hills like an IV from a forearm, coiling around to a stack that released a flame that was virtually invisible, except for a glassy haze. It burns continuously, sometimes reaching close to 20 feet high and temperatures of almost 1,000 degrees.

It is one of the signs that the mounds here were formed not by nature, but rather by the mountains of garbage that built up when the area was an open landfill. Kingsland Landfill, as it is still known, has been closed for almost three decades, and in the years since, it has been covered, leaving behind the golden brown foothills that have become a draw for birds looking for a meal.

But that flare, burning off methane created by decomposing garbage, poses a potentially lethal threat to unsuspecting birds that pass through it. Larger birds have been found with singed wings, unable to fly or fend for themselves. Bird-watchers believe that smaller ones are simply incinerated.

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“You hold your breath when you stand out here,” Mr. Torino, the president of the Bergen County Audubon Society, said as he watched birds fly by the flame.

The situation has vexed officials and environmental advocates who have struggled for years to find a solution.

The landfill, which stretches over 150 acres, is now controlled by the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, which has hired engineers and reached out to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service for guidance. But, so far, little has emerged.

“The health of the birds and wildlife is paramount to us,” said Brian Aberback, a spokesman for the authority. “We’re all looking to do the same thing and remedy this.”

The severity of the problem has been difficult to measure. Federal wildlife officials said they were aware of at least three birds that had been killed or injured at the landfill in the past four months. But some are concerned that the toll could be far higher.

“There’s no way to survey what’s going on,” said Chris Soucy, executive director of the Raptor Trust in Morris County, which has cared for several birds injured by the flame in recent years. “We’re only seeing a small slice of the population that’s affected.”

In recent weeks, the trust has taken in two red-tailed hawks that had debilitating burns believed to have been caused by the flame, injuries that could have been fatal had the birds not been found. For one of them, Mr. Soucy estimated, it could take as long as two years for feathers to grow back.

“That bird is pretty well torched — I don’t know what else to say,” he said. “That kind of damage to its wings and tail would make it completely unable to survive in the wild and hunt and live successfully.”

The Kingsland Landfill is part of a patchwork of landfills along wetlands in Bergen County. At one point, in 1969, a state survey found that 5,000 tons of waste arrived in the Meadowlands daily, from more than 100 communities around New Jersey.

“It was the butt of jokes,” Mr. Torino said of the area, its reputation clouded by the stench and environmental toll of the landfills. “Not many things in nature in New Jersey get better. This is one of the places where we could say it got better.”

Like other landfills, the Kingsland Landfill was covered in the 1990s and left as mostly open land. But the tons of garbage left behind were still creating methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Many landfills burn off the methane, as is done here, but harvesting the gas has become more of an option. “We have to deal with it one way or another,” said Monica Mazurek, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rutgers. “This way we’re capturing it and using it as an advanced fuel.”

Mr. Aberback said the authority had plans to capture methane at another of its landfills, but that was “not currently a viable option for the Kingsland Landfill flare.”

The Fish and Wildlife Service says the authority has already followed through on some of its suggestions, like removing a number of possible perches for birds around the flame. A local electric company has agreed to take out or retrofit power lines and other equipment to make them less attractive to migrating birds. Finding a way to make the flare visible to birds is among the other ideas officials say are being explored.

Part of the problem is that the flame never stops burning.

“We’ve found that many of the existing approaches for dealing with this issue are solutions for methane burners that have intermittent flames,” Steve Mars, a biologist in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s New Jersey office, said in a statement, “as opposed to the structure we are dealing with that has a continuously burning stack.”

For some, the frustrating paradox is that the threat looms in a place that has become so enticing for birds. Land once piled high with refuse is now covered with grass and wildflowers, inviting insects, mice, small snakes and, then, the birds that dive down in pursuit of the prey.

“You can see the food chain at work,” said Gabrielle Bennett-Meany, a natural resource specialist for the authority. “You have quite a dynamic little ecosystem on a landfill.”

It has also attracted humans drawn by the subtle spectacle of watching nature unfold.

Christopher Takacs, who organizes field trips for the Audubon Society, lives nearby in Lyndhurst, and visits the park sometimes several times in a day. He will come first thing in the morning, or stop by after running errands.

More than 280 species of birds have been spotted in the Meadowlands, and Mr. Takacs said he had seen 267 of them. He found one of the red-tail hawks on the ground, and has rescued other injured birds.

“That gets to me a little bit,” he said, tapping his chest. “These beautiful little birds getting burned.”

Mr. Takacs had come around sunrise on this Sunday. The sky came to life above him. A killdeer flew high above, and there were cardinals, a little farther away, sticking closer to the ground. He saw a woodpecker and a kestrel. And there was a European starling that seemed to flutter all around, in one moment zipping right by the flame and in the next dashing away.