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

(Continued from page 2)

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

"We have an $80 million investment in that," the DEP's James said. "We don't want to put something on there that will short-circuit that system."

When Thomas approached James in late March, James said it was the first time the department had fielded such a request. Usually when he gets calls about regulations, he said, "they want to spread sludge, not plant wildflowers."

James said the department wants to see whether the wildflower roots will reach the clay and, if they do, whether they will penetrate it or turn to the side and grow laterally.

In May, the department gave Thomas permission to test flowers on a couple of different sites that comprise a half-acre.

Within weeks, the land will be rototilled, sprayed with a pesticide to eliminate the competition, then impregnated with seeds, mostly from The Vermont Wildflower Farm, of Charlotte, Vt., Thomas said.

Then, Central Maine Hydroseeding, an Oakland-based firm donating its services, will spray a cover of wood fiber mulch, fertilizer and water onto the ground to protect the seeds from birds and help them grow.

It will take two years for the experiment to be complete, for all of the perennials, semi-annuals and annuals to have had a chance to bloom.

If it succeeds, the wildflower cover would help both the butterflies and the landfill, James said.

Grass is used now, James said, because it is a cheap and easy solution that does the job of protecting the clay beneath. But the grass is one species, a monoculture that is not ideal for a thriving, diverse ecosystem, he said.

"We've just done this one thing, and everyone is used to it," he said. "Somebody comes up with a new idea and causes us to think."

If the flowers prove to be more resistant to poisoning from methane gas, he said, they actually could be a more effective solution than grass.

The butterfly effect

At the end of a day at the transfer station, Thomas sat at his desk, littered with wildflower books and seed catalogues, marked heavily with color-coded highlighters to indicate species that might suit the needs of both the state environmental department and the butterflies.

So far, Thomas said, he has received a lot of support. The town's government has approved the idea, and companies have donated or discounted their services. The Oakland Lions Club donated $1,000 to the cause and is accepting earmarked donations for it, too.

"I've done something to make a difference, I hope," he said.

Once he proves that wildflowers can exist safely on a capped landfill, he said, he will spread the message. Maine's 400 landfills are just the beginning — there are estimated 560,000 acres of buried garbage nationwide. He wants to reach people in the waste management industry, at statewide conferences and in industry publications, until landfills provide a long chain of migratory butterfly resting spots.

Whether the storm of activity around the idea of planting wildflowers will continue to escalate into a nation-changing tsunami of garbage-covering flowers remains to be seen.

If the vision does come to fruition, however, it can be traced back to that day in late August, when a single flap of the wings of a butterfly carried it across Johnny Thomas' field of view.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287


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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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