The Leichner Landfill operated from 1935 until its closure in 1991. Shown here in the early 1970s, the landfill is still monitored by the state Department of Ecology and other partners. Clark County's solid waste now goes to a different landfill near Boardman, Ore.
On the surface, the land looks like a clean slate. Acres of open space, covered by grass in a mostly residential area.
Clark County officials are finalizing purchase of the property, seeing an opportunity. But they'll have to work around one major complication: The more than 50 years' of garbage and residue buried underground.
Neighbors might know the site better as the old Leichner Landfill. A planning process set to kick off next year aims to find a new use for the former dump and some surrounding property.
Clark County's trash, evidently, is also Clark County's treasure.
"We just cannot penetrate the landfill cap," said Pete Capell, the county's public works director. "But there are some beneficial uses."
The Leichner Landfill closed in 1991, after 56 years in operation. Located in the Orchards area, the site has since been closely watched by the state Department of Ecology and other local partners, including the county. A long-term groundwater and gas monitoring program continues on the site, and will for the foreseeable future, said ecology spokeswoman Linda Kent.
The site has a somewhat complicated history. Groundwater contamination was detected in the early 1980s. Authorities found "volatile organic carbons" about 25 years ago, Kent said. The Leichner property is one of only a handful of regional landfill sites under consent decree through the Model Toxics Control Act, she said, essentially a legal document outlining what's expected during the post-closure process.
In 2011, the county agreed to pay $1.5 million for the landfill and surrounding land from Leichner Brothers Land Reclamation Corp. Last month, Clark County commissioners and the Vancouver City Council made the transaction all but official. (The city granted its approval as a partner in earlier agreements surrounding the landfill. But sole ownership will rest with the county).
Now county leaders will begin exploring what happens next, Capell said.
Included in the 120-acre purchase area is a parcel known as the Koski Property. That land, zoned light industrial, sits outside the former landfill, has no garbage on it and is ripe for reuse, Capell said.
"It's very valuable property for creating jobs," he said.
As for the landfill itself, covering 74 acres, options are more limited. Capell floated passive recreation uses -- think walking trails -- and solar energy generation as possibilities.
Any development will have to tread carefully. There's only 34 inches of cover separating the surface from the pile of garbage underneath, according to the county. But more than two decades after the landfill closed, conditions aren't as uncertain as they used to be, Capell said.
"Because of where the landfill is in its life, the risk is pretty minimal," he said. "Now it's pretty well stabilized."
George White has lived in the nearby Sunnyside Neighborhood for more than four decades. He's been around long enough to remember the sights -- and smells -- of the Leichner Landfill in action, with hordes of seagulls often circling overhead.
White said he doesn't see anything wrong with putting trails or solar panels on the site, as the county has suggested. Whatever the outcome, the public should be involved, he said.
"I would like to see something in there that would be community-related," White said.
Other buried landfills have transformed into a variety of different uses. One former dump in King County now has baseball fields on it. Another became a golf driving range. And in Everett, a former landfill is the site of proposed commercial development, Kent said. None of those paths, however, are likely for the Leichner property.
The Leichners themselves plan to have a seat at the table in future discussions of the site, said attorney Steve Horenstein, speaking on behalf of the family. But the ultimate decision on what to do next will rest with the county, he said.
The Leichners will continue to own property adjacent to the old landfill, including a site still used by Waste Connections. Transferring ownership of the former landfill itself was in the interest of all parties involved, Horenstein said.
"The family is very happy that this is coming to a conclusion," he said. "It's been a long haul -- so to speak."