No More Picking: Vineyard's Last Landfill Closes; Some Mourn It

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By MANDY LOCKE

The days of dump picking, finding a treasure in another man's trash, drew to a close on the Island this week.

Until yesterday the Chilmark landfill was the last active, unlined landfill in the state. By year's end it will be a neat mound of newly planted grass.

"This is a sad day for Martha's Vineyard. No more picking through the rubbish," lamented Basil Welch, an 80-year-old Chilmark native who has spent many a day digging through other folks' discards.

"I've seen enough lumber in the dump every year to build a house. We used to pull whole cars out of there - Model As, Model Ts, Maxwells, Buicks - you name it. No more treasures, no more trash, no more," said Mr. Welch, remembering his childhood.

Wednesday morning, even the regular crowd of gulls seemed to know the day carried historical significance. One perched on top of a steep bank of earth, surveying the scene as Chilmark residents rummaged through the day's newest arrivals.

"It's a point of pride in Chilmark to say what you've built from stuff pulled out of the landfill," Matthew Poole, Chilmark board of health member and agent, said Wednesday morning during a walk through the site.

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The base of the hundred-year-old landfill in Chilmark is ashes. Chilmarkers, like their counterparts in other towns, burned garbage on the property from the turn of the last century through the 1970s, when the Clean Air Act put an end to the practice. Vineyarders stopped burying kitchen trash in Island landfills in 1989, when the state Department of Environmental Protection learned that the Vineyard draws its water from a single underground source.

But plenty of other goodies - building scraps, odds-and-ends furniture and random household wares - have found their way to the top of the heap each week. About 2,800 tons of construction and demolition debris - generated by the four member towns of the trash district - have been diverted there each year since the last of the Island's other landfills shut down nearly five years ago.

By nine o'clock Wednesday morning, David Durst had already tucked a piece of wood beneath his arm - a perfect base for his Menemsha Mussels cartoon art.

"All the materials for my art come from the Menemsha beach or the Chilmark dump. It's all free, and I'm doing a little cleaning up in the process," he said.

But Mr. Durst's dump picking has limits, he admits, mostly due to space boundaries enforced by his wife.

"There's plenty of great stuff here. I just don't have anywhere to put it. And why give my wife more ammunition?" he said with a laugh. When Mr. Durst learned Wednesday would be his last chance to salvage scrap wood, he reversed his minivan and headed back for a second sweep.

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Dump picking, the well-practiced say, requires patience and tenacity. When weeding through the piles, one must open all containers, folders and packets. On Wednesday, one dump picker found Eric Clapton's Timeless collection album stashed inside a discarded record sleeve. A nearby folder contained a stack of hand-written letters from the 1920s, including a Mother's Day greeting on a Western Union telegram.

On the final day of the Chilmark landfill, Mr. Poole revealed a dump picking secret he learned from his grandfather: Turn every page in thrown-out books. Folded up dollar bills - a 20-dollar-bill for the lucky - are sometimes stashed among the pages. He used the trick one last time to no avail.

As afternoon faded into evening, a padlock secured the gate of the Chilmark landfill. Only the crews burying the last of the loads and capping the 200-foot heap will be allowed on the property through the end of the year.

After the capping is complete, the town will rebuild a local dropoff center at the Tabor House Road property. They're also hoping to prepare the site to be used for some municipal purpose. A parking lot, a site for a cellular phone tower and a storage site for municipal equipment are being discussed by Chilmark leaders.

In the meantime, Chilmark residents are being directed to the old West Tisbury dump on Old Stage Road. To accommodate extra traffic, the West Tisbury dropoff will increase its hours - adding all-day Wednesday and Sunday afternoon to the schedule.

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Now that the last of the Island's landfills is being closed, all construction and demolition materials must be shipped to the mainland, just as household rubbish and recycleables are now. The added expense has driven up costs at the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District and caused some logistical complications at its central transfer station in Edgartown. Teardown loads will only be accepted at the transfer station by appointment. Smaller loads can be delivered during normal transfer station hours, except on weekends.

While some Islanders are mourning the end of the dump picking era on Martha's Vineyard, state environmental officials are celebrating the closure.

"We really need to protect our very precious water supplies. On the Cape and Islands, we're talking about a sole source aquifer," said David Johnston, deputy regional director of the DEP southeastern regional office. The state ordered the closure of unlined landfills in the early 1990s. Chilmark, the last of the old-school landfills, has been working up to a drop-dead date for several years.

But folks like Mr. Welch still shake their heads at the closure: "It took us 300 years to convince people to take their trash up to the dump instead of burning it in their yards. We've only been good at this for about 10 years, and now we have to close it?"