Rural counties depend on landfill business

Rural counties depend on landfill business

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Small towns where trash equals cash are increasingly dependent on the huge companies that own Oregon’s dumps.

STORY BY ADRIANNE JEFFRIES // PHOTOS BY GARY OGILVIE
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The Columbia Ridge landfill 10 miles south of Arlington takes in one-third of the 6.5 million tons of trash disposed of in Oregon every year. It also provides Gilliam County with jobs and cash.

Arlington, population 610, gets a lot of traffic for a city with no stoplights. Eighty trucks rumble down Main Street daily, circling the downtown on their way to the biggest municipal solid-waste dump in the state.

The Columbia Ridge Landfill is 10 miles south of Arlington, neighbored by a few ranches and dozens of wind turbines spaced generously across the brown, windy plain. If viewed from above, it would look like a huge trash heap being smashed into the side of a small mountain. The sheer size is even more impressive once you realize that half the mountain is underground. The stench is wet and sulphurous.

Six-and-a-half million tons of trash is disposed of in Oregon every year. More than a third goes to Arlington, where almost 20 years’ worth of Seattle’s and Portland’s trash is buried.

Before the dump came to town in 1987, Arlington was in bad shape. The family farms that were the backbone of the local economy were dying, eventually dwindling from 350 to 50. Locals joked that the region’s two exports were wheat and kids, who moved away because there were no jobs.

The nation’s largest waste company, Waste Management, asked Gilliam County if it would be interested in being the “willing host community” for a large regional solid-waste facility. Locals were more than willing after they learned it would bring at least 35 family-wage jobs. Gilliam County Judge Laura Pryor and Arlington Mayor Dennis Gronquist went to bat for the landfill during months of land use hearings, public opposition and media scrutiny between 1987 and 1989 (“We really want Seattle’s garbage,” Pryor told the Associated Press). Most of the resistance during the two-year permitting process actually came from west of the Cascades, where people argued that trash could fly out of trucks on its way from Portland and land in the scenic area of the Columbia Gorge.