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Tons of Trash Towers Over Fossils in California
Something to mull over on the west coast.
REGION & STATE
Tons of Trash Towers Over a Vast Treasure-Trove
Fossils by the thousands have been found in a San Joaquin Valley landfill.
But how to manage the digging has become a real bone of contention.
By Robert Hollis
L.A. Times Staff Writer
November 28, 2004
MADERA, Calif. - Among the roadside attractions along U.S. Highway 99
through the flat, agricultural expanse of the San Joaquin Valley, the
Fairmead landfill would probably rate near the bottom of anyone's list.
Few motorists heading north to Merced or south to Fresno realize that around
the 160-foot-high hill where thousands of tons of trash are buried lies one
of the largest known concentrations of fossils from long-extinct mammals
that roamed the valley between 750,000 and 1.6 million years ago.
Since the first great, curved mammoth tusk was discovered in 1993, when a
new section of the Madera County landfill was opened, the Fairmead site has
yielded more than 16,000 large fossils and 5,000 microfossils from about 36
species, said Diane Blades, co-founder of the San Joaquin Valley
Except for volunteers, the public has mostly been kept from the 116-acre
landfill for more than a decade as fossils were uncovered. But that may
change under a plan by the county and the foundation to build a natural
sciences museum and visitors center on the site.
Fossils so far have been found over more than 14 acres at depths of 10 to 60
feet, making Fairmead one of the largest middle-Pleistocene fossil beds in
North America, scientists say.
"There's no indication of fossils running out any time soon," said Robert
Dundas, a vertebrate paleontologist at Cal State Fresno who was among the
researchers to identify the first mammoth tusk excavated in 1993. "I don't
think anyone knows how big the site really is."
The current vision for the museum includes several modular buildings
containing exhibits of some of the fossils found at the site; a laboratory
where fossils would be prepared for exhibit; a display of how the landfill
operates; and a 3,600-square-foot, tent-like structure that would cover the
site and allow visitors to watch as the ancient remains were retrieved from
But even as the county and foundation proceed with fundraising for the
museum, a dispute has arisen between Blades and the county over management
of the fossil-extraction process. Monitored by Blades from 1993 until
earlier this year when she resigned, the process has ground to a halt as the
county prepares a "mitigation plan" that meets the requirements of state
environmental law, said Kathy Kivley, deputy director of the Madera County
Resource Management Agency.
Under the law, the county is required to have monitors at the landfill
looking for fossils whenever any new digging occurs. But in recent months,
the number of paid and volunteer monitors has dwindled. By late last month,
when the last monitor left, the county ordered fossil recovery operations
halted until the mitigation plan was in place.
Kivley said the county expects to choose one of five environmental
consultants to prepare the mitigation plan that would permit burial of the
trash as newly exposed fossils are excavated. County officials said it could
take several months to select a consultant and prepare a mitigation plan.
The dispute illustrates the dilemma that Madera County officials face as
they deal with protecting a unique scientific resource that happens to lie
beneath the county's only landfill.
Under the old mitigation plan, a bulldozer was used to scrape a thin layer
of earth away. Monitors working with a small group of volunteers identified
and tagged the fossilized remains and, in some cases, arranged for larger
specimens to be encased in protective plaster before removal.
Once the fossils were removed to a depth of 50 to 60 feet, each five-acre
bulldozed pit - known as a cell - was lined with plastic material to contain
contamination from the garbage dumped into it. Once the cell was filled, it
was covered with topsoil and work began on a new cell.
The system worked well for years and resulted in the recovery of thousands
of specimens now at the University of California's Museum of Paleontology in
Berkeley, said Mark Goodwin, assistant director of the museum.
Indeed, the fossil cornucopia has led county officials to ask how many are
enough, since hundreds of examples of the same Pleistocene mammals have been
recovered over the years, said Madera County Engineer John Mitchell.
Goodwin, like many in the scientific community, argues that the county is
obligated by law to remove and preserve all the fossils uncovered at
Fairmead. Despite the duplication found in the fossil beds, there is no end
to future discoveries, he said.
Goodwin and Dundas agree that if the landfill had not existed on top of the
fossil beds - thus requiring the county to remove and protect them - there
would have been no money to pay for the 11 years of scientific work at the
According to Blades, county supervisors raised the so-called tipping fees
for solid waste disposal at the site after the fossil beds were discovered
in 1993 to help pay for the cost of monitoring and removing the ancient
remains. But county officials, none of whom worked for Madera County 11
years ago, said they could not find any records to support Blades'
The Fairmead fossils reveal an ancient world inhabited by a variety of prey
and predators - some familiar and some long extinct. No human remains have
been found. Among the prey species are mammoths, two types of camels (one of
which looked like a modern-day llama) and three species of ground sloth.
The predators were large and fearsome. In addition to saber-toothed cats,
including the Smilodon californicus (the California state fossil), there was
the fearsome giant short-faced bear, which was much larger than today's
When these creatures roamed the Central Valley, it was a vast, marshy area
because drainage through San Francisco Bay was blocked, Dundas said. "It was
probably something akin to an African waterhole today."
Copyright 2004 Los Angeles Times
Patricia Kane-Vanni, Esq.
Bala Cynwyd, PA 19004
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