LAS VEGAS - "The dump" conjures images of broken couches, mounds of garbage, flies, rats, smells so strong they radiate visibly into the air.
But very few Southern Nevadans have seen the region's main dump. The biggest landfill in the U.S. is tucked away in a narrow valley in the Apex area an hour north of Las Vegas, just off Interstate 15 but not visible from the freeway.
Mountains surround the dump valley, which is etched out into red earth terraces. The garbage is layered like a sheet cake beneath each terrace, and pipes crisscross the land, carrying away the methane generated by the decomposing garbage. Republic Services just announced a plan to convert the methane into electricity by late 2011.
But that energy plant has yet to be built, so for now the place looks like a plastic bag-pocked mining site.
The odor is a clue to its real purpose. It does faintly stink, but not as bad as one might expect, considering it stores nearly 50 million tons of rotting trash. Another 9,000 tons or so rolls in every day. During the height of the construction boom a few years ago the daily average exceeded 15,000 tons.
Today there's almost no construction waste going to Apex, commercial waste is down and even residential waste has decreased, according to landfill General Manager Mark Clinker.
So this is a place where the recession is doing some good. The less trash sent to the landfill, the longer the landfill stays open. There's enough space at the 2,200-acre site to store all of the Las Vegas Valley's waste for the next 200 years, according to Bob Coyle, vice president of government relations for Republic Services.
The landfill is also ever-expanding in a way. Las Vegas Paving comes in and digs out the rock of the surrounding mountains, making way for the terraces of trash that will take their place. The company uses the rock for roadway construction. A Republic Services team comes in after the paving crew and preps the area with a welded toxins shield intended to protect the aquifer, layers of rock and dirt. Then they add vacuum tubes to suck up the methane and pipes to gather the liquid that drains from decomposing trash. Everything is mapped with precise GPS coordinates.
Giant trucks roll in at all hours from transfer stations across the valley. (The transfer stations are where trash from curbside cans and commercial bins are taken.) When it arrives at the landfill, the trash is weighed and taken to the latest dump terrace. The drivers hook their trailers up to tippers that lift the containers 90 degrees in the air, sending a cascade of garbage onto the terrace below. Huge steel-wheeled compactors - the wheels alone are at least 8 feet tall - then chop and compress the trash.
The compactors can work on up to 150,000 square feet of trash at a time, after which bulldozers are brought in to cover it all up with at least six inches of rock and dirt, and start a new terrace. In a 24/7 operation like Apex, that happens about once a week.
The goal is to keep the trash from flying off in the strong winds prevalent in the area.
Tires and plastic grocery bags are the archenemies of landfill employees.
Tires have an uncanny ability to make their way to the surface, and plastic bags are almost impossible to keep down when the trash is being dumped. There are several fences and bag traps around the landfill, but it's not hard to spot one or two bags soaring for the heavens.
"The day they outlaw those plastic bags I will stand and salute," Coyle says. "I will be a happy man that day."
Information from: Las Vegas Sun