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Rural counties depend on landfill business

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Articles - February 2010
Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Lewis acknowledges Waste Management’s economic impact and the multiplier effect it has in the county, but she says it was a small factor. She says the main issue was whether Riverbend could prove that it met county and state land use criteria.

“I think that we need reasonable solid waste alternatives in Yamhill County and we just voted that the reasonable alternative was to expand the existing landfill. There are no better alternatives at this time,” she says. But she looks forward to the day when Riverbend will close. “I want this to be the last time we expand the landfill,” she says.

A “tipper” inverts a container of garbage into the open face of the Columbia Ridge Landfill to be compacted and buried. Waste Management has four tippers at Columbia Ridge.

Opponents have appealed the county’s decision.

Mammoth waste companies may have gained the upper hand with local governments that bank on including landfill revenues in their budgets. But counties where waste is an important economic driver have other reasons to be concerned.

Arlington was the first large EPA-compliant landfill in the region. Today there are half a dozen comparably sized landfills in Oregon and Washington, including the Roosevelt Landfill across the river in Klickitat County. Competition from neighboring landfills can rob counties of host fees, which are usually pegged to waste volumes. Last year, Roosevelt scored a $9.9 million contract for household waste from Oahu, Hawaii, and it could potentially snatch any of Arlington’s big contracts — Seattle, Metro and Kitsap County, Wash. — which would mean a devastating loss of revenue for Gilliam County. Gilliam is currently embroiled in a fierce battle over tribal fishing rights that will determine whether or not there will be barge access at the Port of Arlington, an important factor in securing waste contracts.

Additonally, the total waste stream may be shrinking. The amount of trash Oregonians sent to landfills increased every year for a decade until 2008, when it dropped by 16%. The decrease was largely due to the recession, but some industry experts say that recycling enthusiasm and efforts to reduce packaging have reversed the trend of rising landfill waste for good. The Northwest has always been a leader in recycling and could start to see landfills lose importance, says Waste Management regional vice president Dean Kattler.

The rising recycling rate is part of what’s driving the waste industry’s current big trend: the green revolution. Waste Management now earns 49% of its revenue from “green services,” including recycling and waste and landfill gas energy projects. It’s hard to predict what effect this will have on Oregon’s dump towns — decreased landfill volumes may force counties to wean themselves off landfill host fees, but alternative waste-management technology could also create jobs — but there are already hints of big changes in Oregon’s dump economy. Two former landfill engineers in Boardman founded Finley Bioenergy, which started converting the methane from the Finley Buttes Landfill into electricity in 2007. It’s only 2.5 jobs at the moment, but the operation will expand as the landfill grows and produces more methane. Other kinds of composting and waste-to-energy projects could potentially bring new jobs.

Workers building a new cell at Finley Buttes Landfill in Boardman lay down the high-tech plastic liner required by the EPA that prevents water from leaching through the landfill and seeping into the groundwater.

The biggest unknown is what the eventual environmental impact will be of burying so much waste. The EPA warns that landfill liners can fail unpredictably with time, and counties will be left with their caches of other people’s trash for a long, long time after the landfill is closed. Scientists estimate that it takes at least 500 years for a plastic bag to decompose and more than 1,000 years for Styrofoam.

With 20 years of hindsight, Laura Pryor and Dennis Gronquist say there isn’t much they’d do differently. The landfill may have actually made the local economy less diversified by providing higher-paying employment that drew workers away from farming. But Pryor and Gronquist say they would absolutely sign the agreement with Waste Management again.

“The impact that this has on the county,” Pryor says, pausing to search for a word with enough weight, “is extreme.”


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