How to dig up a landfill

The history, hurdles and local politics behind the search for E.T.

By Matt Leone @LattMeone

The meeting, officially, didn't have anything to do with Atari.

It was a "meet and greet" in 2011 between members of marketing agency Fuel Industries and a group of consultants. Fuel CEO Mike Burns does a lot of these. Small talk. Pressing the flesh.

When Burns heard that one of the consultants worked for Universal in the 80s and helped license E.T. to Atari, he had a flashback. He remembered playing E.T. on the 2600 as a 12-year-old. "My god it was shitty," he says. "It was horrible." And he remembered hearing an urban legend of how Atari had buried millions of copies of the game in the desert because it couldn't sell them in stores.

"I said, 'You know what? Those cartridges are buried somewhere. Where are they buried?'" says Burns.

"She said, 'You gotta buy me a lot of drinks before I tell you.'

"And I'm like, 'That can be arranged.'"

The consultant didn't end up giving Burns the exact location. But the conversation sparked an idea. Burns began thinking that digging up the landfill would make for a great documentary.

At that point, he didn't foresee the three years of political and environmental hurdles that would follow. He knew the rumor and thought he had a lead. And that was good enough to give it a shot.

The pet project

Burns didn't set out to make documentaries.

Mike Burns.

He grew up in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a small town near the tip of Lake Superior. "There isn't a lot to do there," he says. "It's like Alamogordo [the New Mexican desert town where the Atari dig would eventually take place], but instead of sand it's snow. So ... I spent a ton of time in front of a computer or in front of a video game machine."

In 1999, he co-founded Fuel Industries, an "interactive studio" that splits its time between making games, apps, websites and cartoons — anything that kids might want to play or watch — often built as advertising for clients.

Today, Fuel has multiple divisions and contracts with companies like McDonald's, Nokia and Mattel, giving Burns the resources to throw at an idea like digging up a landfill. He has an office in Los Angeles — filled with collectibles like a moose head to remind him of his childhood — a company with almost 200 employees and a house in Malibu. Or as he jokes, "The Bu."

Burns knows when to put on the professional face. When he discusses Fuel, it comes out like a corporate statement — it's a "robust digital agency," focused on the "youth space" with campaigns that "engage through play." When he talks about digging up Atari cartridges, he shifts gears, sounding like a Canadian surfer, making it clear that this is a pet project rather than a money grab.

"There's not a lot of money in documentaries," he says.

But out of nostalgia, he decided to pursue it. Something to do on the side, occupying two or three percent of his company's staff, part time. Another moose head to hang on his wall.

Meeting Joe Lewandowski

In early 2011, Burns rounded up a small group to chase the idea. He teamed up with friends at local documentary production company Grainey Pictures to plan what the film could look like and set Fuel Development Executive Daniel Schechter on a research mission.

Schechter began cold calling landfills across the Western U.S. While media reports from the '80s pointed to a landfill dump in Alamogordo, Schechter wanted to do his "due diligence" and estimates he contacted 30-50 landfills between California, Nevada and New Mexico.

In July 2011, Schechter found a man who said he could help.

Daniel Schechter at the dig site.

Joe Lewandowski has been working in Alamogordo's waste recycling industry since the 1980s. He was there when the Atari burial happened, and he knew as well as anyone how to find the cartridges. "He knows everybody in the whole state, from, it seems, like the governor down," says Fuel VP of Development Gerhard Runken, "so he's the guy you go to to get things done."

When Lewandowski picked up the phone and heard Shechter on the other line, he wasn't particularly surprised.

In 2011, Lewandowski says, he started getting similar calls. He heard from professors at Alabama State and NYU. The Discovery Channel reached out, wanting to feature the Atari grave in a show about the strangest items in landfills — narrowing a list of 100 down to three, with Atari making the cut. An "investigative company" contacted him to see if a dig was possible. It was in the zeitgeist.

So when Schechter first called, Lewandowski didn't think much of it. He'd been down that road before, gathering notes and putting together research.

The main difference between Fuel and the others, he says, was that "Daniel Schechter was a pain in the ass and didn't go away. That's the simple answer."

Joe Lewandowski at the dig site.

"[Schechter] is such a persistent little bugger," says Burns. "He'll never take no for an answer and he'll just go, go, go."

"I liked his persistence," says Lewandowski. "He wanted the story as much as I did. Initially, I didn't really care if the story was told, but he just kept going, and [Fuel] came out and got things going."

Lewandowski also liked Fuel's approach. While some of the other groups looking to dig focused on the spectacle of the urban legend, Fuel wanted to put the dig in context as a story about Atari's place in the game industry.

"This, I think, is a little more interesting because there were a lot of people who were involved," says Lewandowski. "From kids that were 12 years old when it happened — they snuck out here — to older people [from Atari] ... it's a lot of personalities, a lot of people involved. All these people it touched. It's just a strange story."

With Lewandowski and Fuel working together, they had two obstacles to overcome: pinpointing the exact location and lining up approvals to dig. The former, it turned out, would be easier than the latter.

Playing detective

For Lewandowski, figuring out where to dig was the fun part.

"I knew [approximately] where it was," he says of starting out. "I didn't know exactly where because this is a huge place."

The Old Alamogordo Landfill consists of 300 acres and 100 cells, or holes in the ground, which Lewandowski could identify based on the indentations in the dirt where trash decomposed and sunk. He describes the Atari cell as a "trench dump," which, back in the 1980s, wasn't cataloged the same way it would be in 2014 with proper zones and grids.

"If you're looking for something now that happened in 2008, we can help with that — it's how the police find bodies when they're looking for them," he says. "But we didn't do that back then. We'd just put it in the hole, cover it up and go home."

"If you're looking for something now that happened in 2008, we can help with that — it's how the police find bodies when they're looking for them."

So Lewandowski went to work reverse engineering the landfill process — pulling together clues, analyzing old reference photos, finding people who had scavenged carts from the dump back in the 80s and drawing diagrams and cross sections. "Finding a 100x40 foot pad in 300 acres, 30 feet down, that was the fun part," he says.

He would need some help, however. While Lewandowski led the organization, Fuel signed a deal with Microsoft to fund the dig and the documentary.

"That's a few bucks down there to make this happen," Lewandowski says. "And I wasn't going to write my check on it. I said, 'I'd bet my car, but I wouldn't bet my house on it.'"

Microsoft's Xbox Entertainment Studios team was in the market for exclusive programming to run on Xbox 360 and Xbox One and had been in discussions with a company called Lightbox to produce a documentary series about "seminal moments of the digital revolution," according to Lightbox Co-Founder Jonathan Chinn. Microsoft liked the Atari idea and connected Fuel with Lightbox. Later, the group brought in director Zak Penn, known for his work as a writer on films like The Avengers — and a documentary about the Loch Ness monster.

Jonathan Chinn at the dig site.

In the background, Lewandowski narrowed his dig target to one side of the landfill, then to 12 cells, then to four. Then thanks to a scrapbook his wife had put together years earlier — "which I thought was silly back then when she was doing it" — he found old Polaroid photos, which narrowed it down to two.

Sorting between those final two cells would take Lewandowski until the weeks leading up to the actual dig in April 2014, when a soil-boring and pot-holing investigation moved his anticipated dig location 300 feet. To clear the final environmental hurdles, environmental firm Souder, Miller & Associates needed to test the air quality to make sure it was safe.

"Then we started dating things like newspapers," he says. "We'd dig down a little bit, and you'd find May, and then July, and then August to September and so on. And then we knew it was in that area. That got us close, and then the rest of it was just taking a good shot at it."

Choosing Fuel

Before Lewandowski could take his shot, however, he, Fuel and their partners had to clear a series of political and environmental roadblocks — a process that started back in 2011 but wouldn't finish until just before the dig in April 2014.

This was the less fun part, he says — getting approvals from the New Mexico film commission, the Alamogordo city council, the police, the mayor and environmental groups. Burns calls it "navigating two years of politics."

"It's been a lot of bumps along the way," says Lewandowski. "That's why it took so long."

One of the first steps, says Burns, was convincing the city that Fuel was the right company for the job. Burns and Schechter credit Lewandowski with his help. Lewandowski credits Fuel with its persistence.

"It was a tough ordeal trying to get the city on board," says Burns. "The guys had to come out here [to Alamogordo] many times to pitch them and prove that we were qualified to do this, qualified to understand it, qualified to bring this to life. And at one point we almost lost it. There was another company that, you know, they had a lot more television credit."

Schecter and Runken say the main difference with Fuel's approach was that it targeted fans of games instead of serving as a segment within a larger show and that it would portray Alamogordo in a positive light.

On December 6, 2011 the city of Alamogordo awarded Fuel exclusive rights to the dig. But being first in line didn't mean it would happen. The team would still need to overcome further environmental and city council approvals — and the disapproval of a handful of citizens worried about unearthing something else in the landfill.

The pigs

Over the course of 2012 and 2013, Fuel and Lewandowski ran into a number of political issues surrounding the dig. One of the most common issues concerned fear of mercury buried in the landfill.

In 1969, the Huckleby family of Alamogordo attracted national media attention for unknowingly feeding mercury-laced grain to its pigs and then eating the tainted pork. Three of their children suffered serious permanent injuries from mercury poisoning, and in the aftermath, the city buried the remaining pigs and grain in The Old Alamagordo Landfill.

As word of the Atari dig plans got out, local citizen Helen Wood began a campaign to spread the word about its proximity to the pigs, going to city council meetings, posting online and emailing the mayor.

"When you start dealing with garbage, people get a little nervous."

She found an ally in Paul Sanchez, another citizen active in Alamogordo politics, who was similarly concerned about potential issues arising.

The situation came to a head in a city council meeting in June 2013, when Sanchez brought Amos Huckleby, one of the remaining living Huckleby family members, to speak. Sanchez said he wanted to "put a public face on this situation." Huckleby is unable to walk unassisted and is blind as a result of the poisoning. At the meeting Huckleby said that the mercury affected his nervous system, balance, coordination and motor skills.

"The very same landfill that those Atari games are in — several hundred yards, we think, from where the Atari games are, is about 4,500 pounds of that mercury-laced grain, and about 200 hogs that were butchered and buried," said Sanchez.

In this same meeting, Lewandowski then took the podium to rebut Sanchez's concerns, saying he grew up knowing the Huckleby family and took the issue seriously, but he knew where the mercury was buried and was confident it was far enough away that there would not be any danger in digging in the Atari cell.

"When you start dealing with garbage, people get a little nervous," he says.

His confidence came, in part, because of the environmental precautions in place. Before the dig could happen, an extensive waste evacuation plan ensured that the parties involved would monitor the landfill air quality and provide safety precautions. Lewandowski worked with Souder, Miller & Associates to clear the process with the New Mexico Environment Department.

The election

Six months after his city council presentation with Amos Huckleby, Paul Sanchez announced his candidacy for mayor at large of Alamogordo. Sanchez remained against the dig. One of his opponents, Susie Galea, was for it.

Sanchez, a former military officer who spent 26 years in the Air Force, described himself as a watchdog for the city and built an aggressive campaign that attacked Galea over issues like spending too much on government travel.

"I had people saying I was killing children."

Galea, who had previously served as mayor and was a city commissioner, took a calmer approach focused on economic development, saying much of her family had recently moved to Alamogordo and she wanted to put down roots there.

Neither candidate made the landfill dig a major part of their campaign, instead focusing on issues like approving a Family Fun Center and managing the city's water supply. But for Lewandowski and the documentary team, there was a clear divide — one candidate supported them, and the other did not.

Galea's support upset some locals, who claimed she was pocketing money and polluting Alamogordo. "I had people saying I was killing children," she says. Galea says she supported the dig because she was confident it would be safe, and because she saw an opportunity for tourism.

Back home, the team at Fuel was nervous about the election results. Most of their approvals from the city had been cleared, but a few environmental checks remained. And if Sanchez won, that could have thrown a wrench in their plans. To some, it was a minor campaign issue in a small town. But to the documentary team, it was one of the last hurdles left to overcome.

On March 4, 2014, Galea won the race with 1,679 votes. Sanchez came in third with 436. "We were quite happy to hear that she was reelected," says Fuel Director of Communications Nick Iannitti.

No tresspassing sign at the Alamogordo landfill.

Sanchez didn't respond to Polygon's interview request for this story, but on his Facebook page, he continued to support Helen Wood's efforts following the election. At one point in mid-March, environmental paperwork delayed the dig, leading Sanchez to post, "I wonder what Susie's saying now?"

Had Sanchez won, Burns thinks he "probably would have kiboshed" the dig but isn't sure he would have succeeded. "I think it would have slowed things down," says Burns before the dig. "At the end of the day, we're digging up some cartridges. We're not digging graves ... hopefully. And I get there's a natural history here that some other people are worried about. There's some other buried skeletons in their closet that they don't want to ungrave. But I really think that sometimes when people run for mayor and do things like that, they need to have an opposing opinion just to have an opposing opinion. ...

"I think the snowball was already rolling down the hill, and it would have been pretty hard for them to stop. Unless there was an environmental issue, there's not much you could have done."

The day before

On the evening of Friday, April 25, 2014 Mike Burns is having drinks at Carino's — an Italian chain restaurant near Alamogordo's nicer hotels. He spent the afternoon at the dig site, watching the construction team clear some of the dirt from the surface to prep the site for Saturday when the public will show up. When the food trucks and Microsoft's event team will be there alongside a Delorean, dig t-shirts and E.T. merchandise. When the team of archeologists will sort through the trash for everyone to watch.

At this point, Burns' job is to sit back and watch, for the most part. Do a few interviews. Reflecting back on the past few years, he says, in some ways he'll almost be disappointed if the team finds what it's looking for on Saturday.

"It's funny, because I love urban legends," he says. "And part of me is sad about, if we do find them and there's closure to the urban legend, it's no longer an urban legend. ... Part of me will be happy if we don't find them, because then the legend continues."

In the best case version of Saturday, Burns says, "We find the cartridges by 10:30 so that we're not out there in the middle of the blaring heat and sun. I would love to find the E.T. cartridges and some extra goodies that might be buried in there ... I'd be happy finding any cartridges. E.T. would be prime."

In the worst? "There's a lot of those little mini hurricanes that I'm seeing out there all the time — those dust cloud tornadoes. ... Rain would be horrible. ... That would probably be the worst.

"Or we find the pigs."

Sidebar: The skeptic

The results

On April 26, 2014, news stories lit up the internet.

"Success! Atari E.T. games found in New Mexico dump," wrote CNET.

"Legend Confirmed: Atari 2600 'E.T.' Game Discovered at New Mexico Dig," wrote Mashable.

At a little after noon Alamogordo time, the documentary team pulled a copy of E.T. from the landfill. It was one of many games to come out over the next few hours, with Defender, Centipede and many others.

Whether that proves the urban legend true or false varies depending who you ask — for some, the urban legend was that any Atari cartridges had been buried, which was reported by multiple news services in the 1980s. For others, the urban legend was about the scale and the idea that Atari buried millions of E.T. cartridges because the game didn't sell well. As a result of the dig, and Atari employees who came out of the woodwork surrounding it, Fuel and its partners are now able to say with confidence that the former is true and the latter is false.

Following the day's news, the results made most involved happy.

At one point, Burns thought it would be fun to play up the theatrics of the dig and tie in the environmental concerns leading up to the event. "I thought that they should have tented the whole place like in E.T."

Mayor Galea says she plans to work with the city's promotional and tourism board to put up a sign nearby the dig site and possibly to sell memorabilia, such as uncovered Atari cartridges with certificates of authenticity.

Lewandowski points out that the environmental planning paid off — "you'll notice there's no pigs" — and says pulling this off has been one of the biggest challenges of his career. "I've been in this business 30 years, built million-dollar landfills, million-dollar transportation recycling centers," says Lewandowski. "And this had more hassle than any of those."

For the team at Fuel and its partners, it marked the end of a long journey. "The idea to go and excavate a landfill, it's insane and it's crazy and it was just an exciting adventure — just on the surface, the absurdity of it all," says Schechter.

"The thing for me is, I love Atari," says Burns. "It's such an incredible brand, and it's really sad the history of it over the last 15-20 years. ... And I hope this brings some focus back on the brand and the power of the brand and some of the IP that was great — and that maybe somebody will do something great with it." Fin

Illustrations: Tyson Whiting