Rural counties depend on landfill business

Rural counties depend on landfill business

Gilliam really wanted Seattle’s garbage, and Portland’s and anyone else’s, because more waste meant more jobs. But if Waste Management was going to bury trash in Gilliam’s back yard, they were going to have to pay for the privilege. Pryor and Gronquist wrangled a generous list of guarantees for the county: local hiring; closure and maintenance of old, unsafe dumps; charitable donations; and a “host fee” tied to garbage volumes.

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Waste Management was willing to make significant concessions in order to get a regional landfill built before the competition; Metro, the Portland area regional government, was looking for a place to send its trash and Waste Management wanted first dibs. But even after the deal was sealed, the landfill built and the trash flowing, Waste Management was careful to oblige the county. If there was litter on the road the landfill used, Pryor would march into the senior manager’s office and slam a garbage bag full of it onto his desk. “Clean it up,” she’d say. “We didn’t sign up to have you trash our county.” And Waste Management would clean it up.

Residents of Gilliam and other counties that host landfills say they have a good deal: a steady, recession-resistant employer that pays the county incentives instead of the other way around. But the dynamic between counties and waste companies has changed in the 20 years since Gilliam County opened its doors to the landfill.

Waste companies have grown rapidly through mergers and acquisitions in the years after Oregon’s regional landfills were built, becoming vertically integrated, multi-billion dollar conglomerates that often own hundreds of landfills. Management consolidated; companies sent decision makers to corporate offices, leaving site managers and salespeople as the local liaisons.

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Laura Pryor fought to bring the landfill to Arlington when she was county judge. Ronald D. Wilson is the owner of Arlington Ace Hardware Store, which gets business from the landfill.

Columbia Ridge is now just one out of 273 landfills in North America controlled by industry leader Waste Management, which owns two other regional landfills in Oregon. Waste Management was bought in 1998 by USA Waste, the nation’s third-largest waste corporation. The new Waste Management (USA Waste dropped its name because of global ambitions) pulled its senior manager out of Arlington. If Laura Pryor wanted to slam a garbage bag onto a company manager’s desk today, she’d have to drive to Washington state.

Meanwhile, Oregon’s counties have grown accustomed to their new revenue stream. The landfill brings in more than twice the money Gilliam collects in property taxes, making it the county’s largest revenue source. The $3 million in host fees fund line items such as the annual $600 property tax offset for residents, but 25% goes to economic development, with each of Gilliam’s three incorporated cities getting a cut to bolster their budgets, and the rest covering essentials such as the county fire department.