Richard Akin at the McCommas Bluff Landfill. (Photo by Danny Fulgencio)

Most of us don’t think about our trash once it leaves our sidewalk. If we do, it’s probably not to contemplate the minute details of how the managers at McCommas Bluff Landfill keep the landfill from overflowing or how it drains rainwater. But for East Dallas neighbor Richard Akin, it’s all he thinks about at work. Akin is the senior landfill engineer at McCommas Bluff. Sounds like a job that stinks, right? Far from it. “It’s a fun place,” he says. As long as he does his job right — “We like to know that we’re not leaking, that we’re not polluting and that we’re collecting as much as we possibly can,” he says — the rest of us can continue on our merry, oblivious way.

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What’s the biggest challenge of your job?

From an engineering perspective, just making sure we don’t overfill. Landfills live and die by what’s called ‘airspace’ — what we’re allowed to fill. As long as we don’t go over a certain height, everything is fine. So I have to make sure that doesn’t happen.

What does your day-to-day look like?

I’m responsible for drainage and roadways through the landfill and projects that we’re going to do on-site, that we’re not going to contract out. I’m also in charge of the environmental science section. I have an environmental coordinator and four [hazardous-waste] inspectors. We don’t accept [hazardous waste]. They’re looking for things that are not acceptable. They do random inspections on the loads of customers, so they’re looking for things like unused paint or materials containing asbestos. Plus, we can’t accept liquids at the landfill.

They’re also responsible for all the daily checks for our route site to look for what we call ‘leachate seeps.’ We have a big hill of trash and it gets rained on. Rainwater will percolate through the surface material, get into the trash, and it will matriculate down through the garbage, and it collects things as it goes to the bottom. If it decides it wants to come out on the side of the hill, it will form a wet area called a ‘seep.’ As long as it’s not running, it gives us a little time to get it fixed. The way they fix it is they pack more dirt on top of it, which encourages liquid to stay back into the hill and not try to pop out. If it forms any type of a stream, those require immediate attention because we don’t want any of that stuff to escape the landfill. So environmentally, there are lots of things to look at and lots of things to do.

Was it hard to get used to working so closely with garbage?

Not really. It’s funny people always ask, ‘Well doesn’t it stink? It’s nasty.’ Actually it’s not as nasty as you think. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but at the landfill there are different odors that are created by different things. Landfill gas itself has a particular odor. Leachate has a particular odor. The garbage itself has a particular odor. We can use those odors if we’re around the landfill inspecting, if we smell something in a place we don’t expect it. Visually it’s easy to see if something is not where it’s supposed to be, but if it’s something you can’t see but you can smell you go, ‘OK we shouldn’t be smelling this, why are we?’

Is your job dangerous?

The greatest danger to a landfill is fire. People ask about landfill gas. We’re concerned about it because it’s a greenhouse gas. It’s methane. People want to know what it smells like, but it’s like, ‘Well, landfill gas has an odor but methane itself does not.’ It is odorless and colorless, so you don’t know it’s there except that it burns nicely, although it’s not explosive.

Have you experienced a fire at McCommas?

Yes, but typically the fires that we see out here are vehicles. An actual landfill fire, though, I have not had to be a part of one of those. I hope to never be a part of it because you don’t fight them the same way you fight a house fire. Water won’t put it out. It’s a smoldering fire, and it could burn for years. So how do I know that I don’t have one right now? We have over 500 gas wells on the landfill. We’ve been harvesting methane gas. If we see a spike in the temperature, then we know something is awry and we go start the investigation. You have to smother a landfill fire with dirt. Part of our permit is a requirement that we have to have enough dirt on hand to be able to cover the entire working face within an hour with six inches of dirt.

Do you eventually expand the landfill or what’s next?

McCommas is as big as McCommas is ever going to be. There is zero desire to expand it. The permit modifications that would be involved would be such a hurdle that the city is not going to do it. The city decided that they wanted one single place to serve the needs of Dallas County, and that was back in the mid-’70s when they started the permitting process for McCommas. They figured that their long-range plan was that it would have a life of 50 years. The 1980s was when they finally started accepting trash at the landfill. McCommas was originally permitted to bring in 10,000 tons a day. We haven’t seen that kind of volume since the last big economic boom many, many years ago. We see between 5,000-8,000 tons a day — with the exception of Sunday because nobody brings us anything on Sunday. At the current rate of material coming in and at the rate that it’s settling, we have about 45 years still left in McCommas.

We have an old part of the landfill that you’d never know is a landfill because it’s covered in grass. It’s also one of the highest land points in the City of Dallas. We have an absolutely panoramic view of downtown, and on a clear night it is a very beautiful sight. We have sunrises and sunsets that would blow your mind.

Interesting. What else would surprise people about the landfill?

It has nothing to do with the landfill itself. It’s the wildlife. McCommas itself is about 2,200 acres. Only about 978 of that will ever be used for the landfill. The rest of it is nature. I recently took a picture of a beautiful stag. It was magnificent, and silhouetted by the sunset. While driving through part of the landfill one day, I counted 15 deer, but we also have about 300 feral hogs. That’s not as pretty. They get to be big. We can’t hunt them or hurt them. We cannot touch them. We have four nesting pairs of red-tailed hawks. We have vultures and seagulls by the thousands. We’re also on one of the migratory paths for pelicans.