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St. Johns Landfill

Planning and conservation    Managing garbage and recycling    St. Johns Landfill

Learn about the history and restoration of the St. Johns Landfill located on the North Portland Peninsula near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers.

aerial photograph of St. Johns Landfill

The surrounding lakes, rivers, industrial areas and residential neighborhoods are notable in this aerial photograph of the landfill.

Methods of disposing of trash have come a long way since the days when it was common practice to use wetlands as burial sites for garbage. In 1940, a lake located in the Portland, Oregon, metropolitan area was designated as a landfill and served as the region’s primary garbage disposal site for the next 50 years. In recent years, regulations and new technology for managing solid waste disposal ensure that new disposal sites are environmentally sound, and communities that play host to closed landfills are working to manage those old landfills with new technology and under stringent regulations.

Closing and restoring a landfill

In 1980, Metro assumed responsibility for closing the St. Johns Landfill in an environmentally sound manner, and today the former landfill site is recognizable only by the methane gas-collection system that crisscrosses its grassy surface. The area is being actively restored – providing habitat for coyotes, great blue herons and painted turtles – while Metro continues to manage and monitor the area for future uses.

photograph of St. Johns Landfill, 1972

St. Johns Landfill, 1972

photograph of St. Johns Landfill, 2005

St. Johns Landfill, 2005

14 million tons of garbage

Located in north Portland near the confluence of the Columbia and Willamette rivers, the 238-acre St. Johns Landfill is situated in Metro’s Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area, the largest protected wetland within an American city. By the early 1960s, the former lakebed was filled with garbage to the edge of its surrounding levee. Although the majority of waste in the landfill is domestic solid waste, industrial waste from a pesticide-manufacturing facility also was disposed in the landfill between 1958 and 1962. Metro estimates that up to 14 million tons of waste were disposed in the landfill site during its years of operation.

Covering the waste

Metro assumed ownership responsibilities for the landfill from the City of Portland in 1990 and spent the next six years constructing a $36 million landfill cover system to prevent rainwater from leaching contaminants into the surrounding soil and waterways.

The cover’s primary purpose is to keep rainwater from further leaching contaminants from the waste into surrounding groundwater, and to control methane gas generated by decomposing waste. A methane gas collection system draws gas from the waste and pipes a portion of it to a nearby cement company where it is used as fuel.

St. Johns landfill timeline

1939 bridge to the landfill site is constructed over Columbia Slough

1940 waste disposal operations begin at St. Johns Landfill (SJLF)

1980s the original 183-acre landfill site is expanded by 55 acres with an engineered perimeter dike and leachate collection system

1980 Metro takes over SJLF operations under an intergovernmental agreement with the city of Portland

1988 waste disposal begins in the 55-acre expansion area

1988 Metro signs 20-year contract with Waste Management for waste disposal at Columbia Ridge Landfill in Arlington, Oregon

1989 Metro submits closure and financial assurance plan for SJLF to the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ)

1990 SJLF is included in new management area (now called Smith and Bybee Wetlands Natural Area) established by Metro, Port of Portland and City of Portland. Some funds from previous landfill operations are placed in a trust fund to restore and manage surrounding habitat in the natural area.

1990 Metro assumes ownership of SJLF from the City of Portland

1990 first load of waste delivered to Columbia Ridge Landfill

1991 SJLF is closed to any further waste disposal

1993 DEQ issues permit to Metro for closure operations at SJLF

1996 Metro completes construction of a $36-million cover system over all buried waste at SJLF

1998 piping of methane gas from landfill to Ash Grove Cement Company begins

2003 DEQ issues a renewed 10-year closure permit and consent order for a remedial investigation/feasibility study of SJLF

2005 Metro initiates remedial investigation to assess risks to human health and the environment

2007 Metro is collecting and evaluating environmental information as needed to conduct a risk assessment

Since completing the landfill cover in 1996, Metro has spent over $10 million in ongoing maintenance and monitoring programs, special studies and restoration projects, all funded from garbage disposal fees. In total, Metro has spent about $50 million on landfill closure activities.

In 2003, Metro began to develop a work plan for a remedial investigation of St. Johns Landfill that will identify any remaining risks to health and the environment. Implementation of the workplan began in 2005. Depending on its outcome, feasible measures for controlling risks will then be evaluated. Potential future uses of the landfill will be considered and influenced by the outcome of this study.

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Paul Vandenberg

Related Links

Smith and Bybee Wetlands

Home to beaver, river otter, black-tailed deer, osprey, bald eagles and Western painted turtles, this 2,000-acre natural area offers accessible wildlife watching, a canoe launch and more.

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