June 13, 2013

Oakland trash boss wants to bring butterfly effect to town's landfill

Johnny Thomas, 62, believes topping dump with wildflowers will aid migrating monarchs, hummingbirds

By Matt Hongoltz-Hetling mhhetling@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

OAKLAND — When people refer to the butterfly effect, the idea that the flapping of a butterfly's wings can cause a chain reaction that can lead to big changes in the world, it's usually meant as a metaphor.

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas stands with some native flowers growing on top of the dump at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas stands with some native flowers next to a methane vent on top of the landfill at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday. Thomas is spearheading a special habitat for migrating monarch butterflies and hummingbirds on the grassy dump mounds, with a $1,000 donation from the Lions Club.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Additional Photos Below

But one day, late last summer, when the flap of a particular monarch butterfly's wings carried the delicate creature into the view of Johnny Thomas, the man in charge of Oakland's trash, the words took on a literal meaning as well.

Thomas, 62, didn't realize immediately that the butterfly was going to inspire him to expand his duties, beyond sorting and burying and shipping tons of trash at the town transfer station off Town Farm Road. Soon, however, he would be dreaming, not of trash, but of transforming the town's dump, and dumps across the nation, into colorful wildflower gardens.

When Thomas noticed the butterfly last summer, it made just enough of an impression on him that he kept an eye out for the next one, and the next one after that. During a three-day period, he watched six or eight butterflies flit across the town's transfer station and landfill property at ground level, ascend to clear a building, then flutter yet higher to continue on, high over the treetops and out of sight.

The monarchs were heading south for the winter, he realized. They were coming from the north, then landing to rest at a small strip of colorful wildflowers among some brush near the edge of the landfill, before resuming their journey.

Not long after that butterfly flapped its wings, Thomas' dream began to take shape.

"Why couldn't it all be like that?" he asked, spreading his arms in a gesture that encompassed all 12 acres of the landfill he had watched over for seven years.

Each year, millions of butterflies leave the Northeast for their winter roosting grounds in the fir forests of central Mexico.

If Thomas, an unlikely dreamer, has his way, the town's garbage-laden landfill will be topped with a massive display of brown-eyed susans, johnny jump-ups, gloriosa daisies, forget-me-nots, purple coneflowers and blue flax — 23 or 25 varieties in all.

Like the butterflies and the hummingbirds that pause in their migration to sip nectar from flowers like the ones he wants to plant, the idea has a certain amount of whimsy.

Living landfills

Thomas, his ruddy, weathered face ringed in white by his hair and close-trimmed beard, has a special sort of reverence for Oakland's landfill, which looks at first like any other 12-acre, grass-covered hill.

The special circumstances that created the grass-covered dump make it an odd mix of life and death.

"That right there," Thomas said, "is sacred ground."

Beneath the unkempt green grass is a layer of topsoil, mandated by the state to be at least 6 inches deep. The grass and topsoil protect a 2-foot-thick layer of clay, an impermeable cap for a mountain of refuse that Thomas said includes automobiles and appliances, mattresses and refrigerators, wood chips and old, rotting food.

John James has been with the Department of Environmental Protection since 1984. In that time, he has seen the state and federal governments spent more than $80 million putting clay caps on Maine's hundreds of landfills.

James helps oversee state regulation of landfills to prevent water from running through the buried trash. When water does get in, he said, it can leach out metals including iron, manganese and arsenic, and carry it into the ground, contaminating nearby wells and groundwater.

The mountain of trash beneath the grass is hidden, but there are obvious signs that it is there.

Birds perch atop PVC pipes that spew a continuous stream of methane produced by the garbage buried there 23 years ago. Those close enough to a pipe can smell the methane and see it distort the view of what lies beyond, the way heat rising from asphalt does on a summer day.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Johnny Thomas inspects a methane vent pipe on top of the dump at the Oakland transfer station on Wednesday.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

  


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