National Register of Historic Places

Fresno Sanitary Landfill

Fresno Sanitary Landfill (1937)

West & Jensen Avenues
Jean Vincenz, Designer


The Fresno Sanitary Landfill (FSL) is located three miles southwest of the City of Fresno. The landfill is bounded on the north by Jensen Avenue (actually a few hundred feet south), on the east by West Avenue, on the south by North Avenue, and on the west by agricultural fields beyond which is Marks Avenue. The landfill covers an area of approximately 140 acres. It is rectangular in shape with a length of about 4,200 feet in a north-south direction and a width of about 1,250 feet along its east-west axis. Refuse has been placed to a height of from 45 to 60 feet above the surrounding grade within trenches dug lengthwise at the landfill site of about 20 to 24 feet in width each. Side slope gradients range from ten horizontal to one vertical (10:1) on the east side, and as steep as 2:1 on the west side. The top surface has a flat gradient of approximately 30:1, sloping outward from the center with the exception of a small (approx. 200' by 400') area in the middle of the landfill where gradients converge inward. The landfill cover soils consist of dense, orange-brown silty sand in which sparse grasses took hold, but grading along the top of the landfill in 1992 resulted in large portions of landfill being without vegetation.

Between the opening in 1937 and its close in 1987, the FSL accepted municipal solid waste from the City of Fresno. While the wastestream composition varied over the years as packaging styles and material use changed, the waste likely included materials such as food waste, paper and packaging materials, metal containers, glass, rubber, wood, leather, plastics, and some household cleaning chemicals, pesticides and herbicides, and automobile battery boxes. The landfill was also open to the public for the disposal of tree trimmings and a variety of rubbish. The overall average total waste stream at the FSL consisted of approximately 16,500 tons of waste per month. The total waste quantity in-place is between 4.7 and 8.0 million cubic yards.

The operation began in the north section of the landfill in 1937. In its early years of operation, the FSL was primarily located north of Annadale Avenue. The City expanded it to south of Annadale in 1945. The original 20-acre site had been expanded several times. In 1966, the site was 100 acres. In 1969, the city acquired additional land extending down North Avenue, bringing the FSL to its present size of 140 acres. The FSL officially closed on June 30, 1987, as the nation's oldest operating landfill, with a closure ceremony attended by 75 people.

Changes in federal law, especially after 1970, placed much higher environmental standards on landfills than those considered in the 1930s and 1940s. Under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), which established the Superfund program, landfills were subject to stricter regulation and financial liability. The FSL was first evaluated by the Superfund program as a result of a notification filed by the City of Fresno Solid Waste Management Division on May 27, 1981. The city began the process of closing the landfill in August, 1981. The problem of methane gas was first identified in June, 1983. On October 4, 1989, the site was placed on the National Priorities List of Superfund Sites.

Since the landfill closure in 1987, some modifications to the site have occurred, including the addition of one water well in the west-central portion of the landfill, and a second water well in the east-central portion of the fill. A vacuum system on the methane barriers was installed by the City sometime between September, 1990, and August,1991. More recently, a weighing scale and scale house were removed, and the two water wells were filled in and destroyed.

Historical significance

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is the oldest "true" sanitary landfill in the United States, and the oldest compartmentalized municipal landfill in the western United States. It is the first landfill to employ the trench method of disposal and first to utilize compaction. In the strictest sense, New York City "compartmentalized" its refuse by placing it in deep holes and then covering the holes with dirt. But the layering of refuse and dirt in trenches, compacting the dirt and refuse, and then covering the filled areas daily to minimize rodent and debris problems represented the techniques adopted by the builders of modern sanitary landfills, and thus represented a "true" sanitary landfill, not simply a modification on older land-dumping methods.

As the standard practices of land and water dumping drew increased criticism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, engineers and sanitarians looked to a variety of alternatives to dispose of municipal solid wastes. The practice of using waste for fill had been practiced for many years as a supplementary means of dealing with ashes and rubbish, and sometimes garbage. The use of organic wastes alone to fill ravines or to level roads was regarded as highly objectionable because it would putrefy and then smell. When garbage was mixed with large amounts of other materials, the practice was more acceptable, but rarely provided an adequate means for cities to dispose of all of their refuse.

The "sanitary landfill" was the breakthrough that ultimately elevated the practice of filling to the status of primary disposal option in the United States until the late 1970s or 1980s. However, it did not come into substantial use until after World War II, stimulated in large measure by the success of the FSL and the work of its originator, Jean Vincenz.

Early attempts at sanitary fill were tried at Seattle, New Orleans, and Davenport, Iowa, as early as the 1910s, but they were little more than land-based dumps and did not represent systematic or large-scale disposal using the methods that would become more popular after World War II. The modern practice began in Great Britain in the 1920s under the name "controlled tipping." However, London and cities in the vicinity simply were dumping the refuse between houses and covering the piles with street sweepings, rather than taking the refuse to a special location and alternately layering the waste and dirt as in modern sanitary landfills. The American equivalents to the British practice appears in the 1930s in New York City, San Francisco and Fresno, California. In New York, refuse was placed in deep holes primarily in marshes and then the holes were covered with dirt. In San Francisco, layers of refuse were deposited in tidelands to produce additional land, but actual trenches were not dug. Fresno's trench system with compaction, thus, was the most unique and most typical of modern landfill construction.

The man responsible for developing, implementing and disseminating the sanitary landfill in the United States was Jean Vincenz (1894-1989), who served as commissioner of public works, city engineer, and manager of utilities in Fresno, California, from 1931 to 1941. Born in Enfield, Illinois, he completed high school and attended junior college in Fresno. He received a degree in civil engineering at Stanford University in 1918 and a degree in public administration from San Diego State College in 1958. After resigning from his positions in Fresno, he became assistant chief of the Repairs and Utilities Division of the Army Corps of Engineers headquarters in Washington, D.C. (1941-1947), and then served as public works director of the San Diego County Public Works Department (1947-1962). In 1960, he was named president of the American Public Works Association.

When Vincenz became commissioner of public works in Fresno, he recommended not renewing the franchise of the Fresno Disposal Company, which operated an incinerator. He favored public administration of collection and disposal of solid waste. Prior to developing his sanitary landfill in Fresno, he studied British controlled tipping techniques, visited several California cities, and consulted with a New York engineer active in developing its sanitary landfill. He came to believe that a true sanitary landfill required different elements than those utilized elsewhere, especially systematic construction of refuse cells, a deeper cover of dirt between layers of refuse, and compaction of both the earth cover and the waste. The trenches and the compaction process, along with the daily covering of the fill, were the unique features of the sanitary landfill in Fresno, although Vincenz argued that compaction was the more important of the two. No one had ever emphasized compaction of the earth cover and the waste itself before Vincenz.

During World War II, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers experimented with sanitary landfills. In 1941, Jean Vincenz accepted a post as assistant chief of the Repairs and Utilities Division of the Corps of Engineers. While Vincenz was skeptical about extensive adoption of sanitary fills in the Army without sufficient supervision and adequate equipment, he followed his orders to implement the fills. By 1944, 111 posts were using sanitary landfills to dispose of their refuse. By the end of 1944 almost 100 American cities had adopted the sanitary landfill. The sanitary landfill became a universally-accepted disposal option after World War II in the United States.

By the 1970s, solid waste professionals and others began to doubt the adequacy of the sanitary landfill exclusively to serve the future disposal needs of cities. Siting new landfills became problematic in some parts of the country, especially in the Northeast. Many communities simply did not set aside land specifically designated for waste disposal facilities. Landfill siting also is treacherous business because of citizen resistance and increasingly rigid environmental standards. There was growing skepticism with the environmental soundness of landfills, especially those that were unlined or made no provisions for monitoring methane gases building up in the landfill. But despite its growing problems in the 1970s and after, the sanitary landfill was clearly a pioneering disposal option in the United, possibly the most significant and universally adopted disposal technology yet developed.

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is an important historical site because it established the prototype for the modern sanitary landfill in the United States, particularly in the developmental stages of that technology from 1937 to 1950. Vincenz's design, incorporating the trench method, layering of waste and dirt, and daily covering of the fill area introduced a method of disposal that for its time provided a systematic and hygienic method of disposal through the use of the best technology available. No other solid waste disposal option was as widely utilized in the United States and elsewhere as the sanitary landfill. And although the method has drawn criticism in recent years, there is not likely to be a single disposal option developed for many years that will attain such universal acceptance and use.

The Fresno Sanitary Landfill is a National Historic Landmark as well as in the National Register of Historic Places.

Adapted from the National Historic Landmarks nomination, originally prepared by Martin V. Melosi, Department of History, University of Houston.