Contaminants and Birds

Cooperation Key in Landfill Expansion

Landfills in New York are associated more with gulls than eagles. But not at Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), where a thriving bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) population resides possibly within hearing distance of a major landfill. Can this landfill continue to grow outward and upward? Or, is this growth a serious contaminant threat to a federally "threatened" species? These and other similar questions are difficult if not impossible for most Service employees to answer. Yet, they are the bread and butter to the highly trained technical specialists of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's (Service) Environmental Contaminants Division.

Protection of our nation's wildlife resources from the adverse impacts of environmental contaminants should not start only after these resources have been found dead, deformed or in dwindling numbers. This is a lesson learned the hard way, a lesson familiar to most people concerned with the near extinction and recovery of the bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and other long-lived birds of prey. It was played-out in New York State in the 1950s and 1960s as the State's population of nesting bald eagles was reduced from seventy to one, from the effects of DDT and compounded impacts of habitat loss and illegal hunting.

Montezuma NWR, near Seneca Falls, New York, played an important part in returning bald eagles to the skies of upstate New York--and other locations in the Northeast. Methods known as "hacking,"developed and used to introduce young peregrine falcons into the wild, were untested on bald eagles. In 1976, the 3,500 acres NWR complex of diked pools, woodlands, wetlands, and fields was selected by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) as the site for the first bald eagle hacking program in North America. Twenty-three young bald eagles were "hacked" between 1976 and 1980 into the wilds of the Refuge. The first two eagles released in 1976 nested in northern New York in 1980, and in 1987 a trio of bald eagles appeared and began nesting at the Refuge's Tschache Pool, where two of the three had been hacked. Since then, this trio has produced an average of two young per year, surviving well on the Pool's ample supply of carp and other fish species.

Black Brook supplies the water to Tschache Pool, flowing first past the Seneca Meadows Landfill and a related Superfund Site. In 1997, the manager of Montezuma NWR contacted the New York Ecological Services Field Office (New York Field Office) for assistance. Seneca Meadows Incorporated (SMI) had prepared a 32 volume application to significantly elevate and expand the landfill. The Environmental Contaminants Branch at NYFO was given the task to evaluate the application and prepare the Service's position.

It was determined very quickly that Black Brook could carry contaminants that were released either by leaching or by catastrophic event, such as the bursting of a leachate collection tank from the landfill into Tschache Pool. The contamination of the Pool would start the all too familiar food chain "bioaccumulation" that would eventually reach the eagles and their young. Over the next 15 months, the NYSDEC, the Seneca Meadows Incorporated (SMI), and the Service worked cooperatively to address and resolve the issues. An eagle risk assessment was funded by SMI, and several recommendations were accepted and implemented to reduce the risk identified by the key findings. For example, the leachate collection tank was enlarged and set deeper into the ground. The tank's secondary containment structure was fitted with an impermeable liner to prevent small spills. A more comprehensive monitoring program was agreed to, featuring an additional monitoring station, improved protocols, and new parameters, e.g. PCBs and mercury. Also, SMI agreed to provide for long-term monitoring of contaminants in fish from Tschache Pool.

Working together, positive steps were take to protect a threatened species and provide a service necessary to society. Close cooperation, technical expertise, and the will to make the system work are important ingredients in contaminant investigations and remediation. They were all in place in the case of the Seneca Meadows Landfill. The results will help insure that the eagles are able to continue to live and breed at Montezuma NWR, while an important service to society is provided nearby.

Last updated: February 13, 2013