Battle With The Sea: Storms Compromise Block Island's Former Landfill

Dec 17, 2015

Block Island has been dubbed one of “the last great places” in the western hemisphere. It has a shoreline largely untouched by development. But on the northwest corner of island, storms have been washing away at the bluffs, unearthing what used to be the island’s landfill.

High rates of erosion on Block Island are happening in places people least expect, such as the northwest corner of the beach, the site of the island's former landfill.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Clamshells poke out of the cliffs at West Beach on the northwest corner of Block Island. And upon closer look, so do pieces of glass, pipes, machinery, concrete, and other trash. This used to be the island’s landfill; now it’s where they collect trash and then send it to the state landfill in Johnston.

Kim Gaffett, former head of the New Shoreham Town Council and executive director of the Ocean View Foundation, said no one ever thought this landfill would be in danger of falling into the sea.

"For people who are proud of the island and our beauty and our commitment to the environment, it's very hard to look at this,” said Gaffett, “but it's the reality of what we're all having to deal with [with regard to climate change]."

As the wind blasts across the beach, Kim Gaffett makes note of the chain link fence falling apart along the edge of the cliff.

“It's just hanging there,” she said. “The chain link fence was the fence to the extent of the landfill. And then the land went another--at least 50 feet and all of this has been eroded back.”

Over several decades, storms have sheared away the shoreline. Most recently, Superstorm Sandy ate away at the bluff, letting large pieces of trash slide onto the beach. 

This summer, the nonprofit Clean Bays removed more than 10 tons of debris that slid onto Block Island's West Beach from an eroding former landfill.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Gaffett laments seeing a car axel and tires scattered among beach rocks and seaweed. The nonprofit Clean Bays removed more than 10 tons of this landfill debris from the beach this summer.

"This is, I'm sure, not the only landfill in the state of Rhode Island that was close to the ocean and is now being eaten away by the ocean as things change," said Gaffett.

And she’s right. About a handful of capped landfills, along the coast of the mainland, have eroded over time, according to the Coastal Resources Management Council spokesperson. Those landfills have been reinforced with salt marshes or sea walls. But Block Island had no need to take such steps before Sandy.

After heavy rains and major storms, managers with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Superfund Program routinely inspect landfills and other sensitive infrastructure along bodies of water. The EPA conducted tests at West Beach and did not find threatening levels of toxic chemicals being released into the ocean from the former landfill.

The erosion happening along Block Island’s shoreline is storm driven, according to Bryan Oakley, who studies the impact of storms on shorelines at Eastern Connecticut University.

“One of the places where we’ve had about 110 feet of shoreline erosion is where the landfill is on Block Island,” he said.

After Superstorm Sandy, Oakley started to use historic aerial photographs and survey the Block Island coastline to study shoreline changes.

Oakley’s research shows a manmade strip of land, built when the island created what’s known as New Harbor, blocks and traps sand that would otherwise replenish West Beach and protect the landfill.

"It's a manmade change and it's not one we are going to undo,” said Oakley. “New Harbor Inlet and Great Salt Pond are the heart of the Block Island economy. So we're not going to undo that but there may be ways to mitigate and put the sediment back where it's needed on west beach in the future."

New Shoreham Town Manager Nancy Dodge said the town has started planning to adapt to climate change and mitigate its effects. The town completed a sea level rise study and a plan to protect the site of the former landfill from future storms. She said other adaptation and mitigation plans require money the town doesn't yet have.
Credit Ambar Espinoza / RIPR

Besides storms, rising sea levels will also have an impact on the coast, allowing the waves to be a little higher each year as the water level comes up, said Oakley. 

Unlike other structures along harbors and waterfronts, the landfill can’t be moved or elevated. Town manager Nancy Dodge said it will be expensive, but necessary to protect this area from future storms.

“But even the winter storms, the regular Nor'easters have gotten more intense over the last couple of years,” said Dodge. “So we're expecting Sandy Plus the next time around."

Sandy Plus could cause even more damage if it comes in the near future, because the island hasn’t had the money to protect itself yet.

Dodge said engineers designed a rock revetment, or barricade, that would buffer the former landfill from the beating waves. But Block Island doesn’t have enough money to pay for that plan. The town secured a $2.5 million-grant this year for the revetment project, but the grant was recently reduced to $1.7 million.

So engineers have to go back to the drawing board to scale back the design. And Dodge says other parts of the island are vulnerable, too.

"In the midst of doom and gloom, it's sort of like, let's deal with climate change and let's deal with what's causing these issues, because the results are such that we may not be able to stem the tide,” said Dodge.

Global leaders are trying to stem the tide with a historic climate agreement they approved in Paris this month. They’re trying to keep global warming temperatures below 2 degrees Celcius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) and included language in the pact to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celcius. That may be enough to stop developing island nations from disappearing into the ocean and other catastrophic scenarios around the world.

Here at home, Block Island’s eroding landfill is another example of challenges coastal communities will face with greater frequency and intensity if global leaders don’t have the will to follow through with the Paris Climate Pact.

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