Leaders in counties with landfills, where waste is often one of the largest single sources of revenue, say the increasingly massive waste management companies negotiate in good faith. But the real source of a county’s leverage is the ability to pull the land-use permit and kick the landfill out. And without a way of replacing the economic activity generated by the landfill or the steady waste revenues they’ve come to count on, counties are much less likely to do that today.
Oregon’s waste economy employs about 5,200 people, according to the state Employment Department, and generates revenues of about $944 million a year according to the national trade publication Waste Business Journal. Those figures include collections and recycling, but landfills are the hubs of the waste industry. Americans, even in the Pacific Northwest, still throw away more than they recycle.
Jordan Anderson, of the family-owned Industrial Tire Service franchise in Arlington, checks and maintains tires on the trucks that carry waste to the landfill.
Most of the waste that was buried in Oregon last year ended up in one of the state’s seven regional, privately owned landfills. Regional landfills became the norm after stricter EPA regulations in the late 1980s made it too costly for municipalities to maintain smaller landfills. Six of Oregon’s regional landfills are in small or rural counties; three of those ended up in remote eastern counties, where residents welcomed landfills, prisons, anything that promised jobs. “Until renewable energy came along, waste was about the only kind of diversification that was possible. It’s so difficult, because of low population and distances, to attract any kind of industry,” says Mike McArthur, director of the Association of Oregon Counties and former judge of Sherman County, next to Gilliam. “I used to joke that we’d take anything but a nuclear waste dump.”
The landfill itself is out of sight from Arlington’s downtown, but Waste Management employees eat lunch at the Village Inn and buy supplies at the Ace Hardware. The company orders physicals from the Arlington Medical Clinic, necessitates the existence of a family- owned Industrial Tire Service franchise (employees: 3.5) and puts up a stream of contractors at the local motel, which at 34 rooms seems larger than necessary for a town with only one gas station.
Gilliam County attracts a lot of wind energy projects, but those haven’t brought many local jobs. Waste has been the county’s most successful economic development achievement. Yes, Gilliam County has been the butt of a few editorial cartoons. But its unemployment rate is consistently one of the lowest: 6.6% in November, when the statewide rate was 11.1%. “It brought jobs immediately,” Laura Pryor says.