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Rural counties depend on landfill business

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Articles - February 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Waste Management has 136 employees between Columbia Ridge and the nearby hazardous waste landfill, making it the county’s largest private employer. Add the 75 local jobs in trucking, and practically everyone in Arlington either makes a living in waste or has friends who do.

Dennis Gronquist was mayor of Arlington when the landfill came to town. He’s now a Gilliam County Commissioner and manager of Walsh Trucking, which hauls waste to the Columbia Ridge landfill from the Portland metro area.

The economic impact of waste is most concentrated in Arlington, where the state’s largest landfill sits in the second-smallest county by population. But the dump economy extends to Boardman, where traffic from the Finley Buttes Landfill sustains the Port of Morrow’s barge terminal; to The Dalles, where the city manager and county judge were astonished to learn that their “little landfill” is the second-largest single source of revenue for Wasco County; to Yamhill County, where local businesses testified at a land use hearing that being able to dispose of their waste cheaply at the nearby landfill was all that was keeping them above water, and if the landfill left town they might drown.

Oregon’s landfills tend to hire locally, spend locally and keep garbage collection rates low, but landfill owners must still offer hefty incentives — fees to local government, responsibility for road maintenance, free collections events for local residents — to combat the NIMBY mindset.

The irony is that modern landfills are not the noxious, haphazard dumps of the past. The EPA enacted strict rules for landfills that require daily soil covering to discourage animals and high-tech plastic liners to prevent wastewater from leaking into the groundwater. Modern landfills are no more environmentally hostile than any other large-scale industry, says Peter Spendelow, solid waste specialist at DEQ. “You don’t get much environmental damage in the landfills anymore,” he says.

Yet the stigma persists, and poor counties reap the benefits. Because new landfills are so expensive and difficult to site, waste companies are eager to keep their hosts happy — at least, they have been so far.

The methane flare and new gas-to-energy plant at the Columbia Ridge Landfill. Waste Management sells enough electricity to Seattle City Light to power 5,600 homes.

To Eastern Oregonians, trash is cash — simple as that. But residents in wealthier parts of the state have the luxury of complaining. Cross the Cascades, and suddenly landfills are smelly, ugly, noisy and bad for the environment.

The regional landfill in McMinnville, Yamhill County, is almost full — and it shows. Riverbend Landfill looms 100 feet above the trees that line Highway 18, its swollen black profile the shape of a beached whale.

Yamhill is a smaller county, with about 93,000 residents, but it has the seventh-highest median per capita income out of Oregon counties and holds prestige as the heart of wine country, an increasingly popular tourist destination. Many residents expected Riverbend Landfill to be shut down and covered up once it reached capacity in 2014. But two years ago Waste Management, which owns Riverbend, announced a plan to double the landfill’s acreage.


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