On Friday, Oct. 4, Metro News was invited to join a delegation of Metro officials for their visit to the Columbia Ridge Landfill and Gilliam County.
On the road for the trash tour
Every day, 50 trucks leave Portland, filled with the stuff you don't want anymore – plastic wrapping, cat litter, to-go containers, bottle caps and anything else that can't be recycled or composted.
This morning, we're on their trail, en route to the Columbia Ridge landfill near Arlington, the final resting place of most of the Portland region's trashed waste.
Those trucks, each carrying 34 tons of junk, are a key part of the region's solid waste operations. When the contract for getting the region's waste to Arlington went to bid a few years ago, trucking proved to be more cost-effective than rail or barge for hauling trash east.
As we head up the Columbia River Gorge, we'll learn more about that contract. Later in the day, we'll talk to the people in Gilliam County directly affected by the decision to send trash their way. And we'll see what a modern landfill looks like.
But first, business.
Down to business in The Dalles
THE DALLES – The first stop of the day has nothing to do with waste – in fact, quite the opposite. The Dalles Chamber of Commerce has invited the group to stop in for coffee, donuts and conversation with local leaders.
Chamber president Lisa Farquharson said she hopes to build relationships across counties, and having a delegation of leaders from the Portland region is part of that.
"It's about economic development and business advocacy," she said. "It's a great shout out for our community."
It's been a banner 2013 for The Dalles, Farquharson said, highlighting the 72 tour boat berthings off the Columbia River and the chamber's successful charm bracelet program. Local businesses sell charms for a nominal fee, which visitors can then collect and attach to a chain.
So far, 45 The Dalles businesses have signed on to the program, Farquharson said.
A journey across the wheat fields
BIGGS – For a region that prides itself on its sustainability, it might seem counterintuitive to send garbage 150 miles away. Seemingly more confounding is a green region's decision to send that garbage by truck.
But Chuck Geyer, a solid waste planner at Metro since 1984, explained the nuance of picking the most sustainable way to truck trash.
It started in the mid-1980s, when the future of the region's main landfill at St. Johns was in doubt. Built on a wetlands, state and federal regulations forced the region to find a new home for garbage.
An early plan involved building a transfer station in Beaverton, which drew the ire of some Oregon political heavyweights, including pre-gubernatorial Neil Goldschmidt, Phil Knight and then-Gov. Vic Atiyeh. The end result was a change in Metro leadership and a directive from new Metro Executive Officer Rena Cusma to look at how much it would cost to ship waste out of the region.
After a while, it became clear that Gilliam County was the most cost-effective place to bury the region's trash. Meanwhile, in Gilliam County, the biggest concern was the environment, Gilliam County Commissioner Dennis Gronquist said Friday.
"Like everybody else, we don't even like our own garbage – why would we want somebody else's?" said Gronquist, a former Arlington mayor. "Environmentally, 'Are you going to protect us?' and then it's down to business – how are we going to benefit?"
But between Portland and Gilliam County was the Columbia River Gorge, and the notion of trucking trash through one of Oregon's prizes was vehemently opposed by groups ranging from AAA to Friends of the Gorge, Geyer said.
Despite the opposition, the Metro Council stood firm in the plan to send waste to Gilliam County. As for getting it there? The original, 1980s-era procurement rules said the cheapest bid for moving the trash would win.
"Trucking came in low, so we awarded it to trucking," Geyer said.
Most recently, Metro used a request for proposals process which scored a variety of factors for moving the waste – cost, sustainability, reliability, feasibility. Geyer and others talked to barge operators and the Union Pacific Railroad about the logistics of getting the trash up the gorge without a fleet of semis.
Barges presented reliability and feasibility problems, Geyer said. Two sets of hauling fleets – one in Portland, and one in Gilliam County – would be needed to take garbage to and from barges. Closures at the locks on the three dams between Portland and Arlington would force garbage to be trucked anyway.
"It did well on the sustainability measures, but it didn't do really well where you thought it would do really well – environmental criteria," Geyer said. "Barges don't burn ultra-low sulfur diesel, they burn bunker fuel, which has huge amounts of particulate matter in it… It ended up not burning a significantly (lower) amount of fuel."
As for the railroads? Geyer said the Union Pacific line up the gorge is already busy, and garbage requires a dedicated train.
"It's a train that's going to run every other day, with double-stacked containers, multiple cars," Geyer said. "You need to guarantee that garbage train has a slot on the line. That's problematic because they're so busy – some trains have a lot higher margin than garbage."
In other words, the 150 mile hauling distance is too short to be cost-effective for barge or rail. As trucks get more efficient and can carry more garbage, they continued to be the most practical way to get trash from Portland to Gilliam County.
The lifeblood of Gilliam County
CONDON – After miles of wheat fields, wind turbines, rolling hills and sagebrush, we arrive in breezy Condon, a speck of 700 people with a Main Street that would make some of the Portland region's town centers jealous.
Gilliam County Judge Steve Shaffer welcomes visiting Metro officials to the Hotel Condon. The county, he says, is able to "hang on quite a bit" and fight rural flight because of the positive economic impacts of the landfill.
There's a general store, a couple of cafes, a theater, some retail and the historic Hotel Condon, a carefully-restored boutique catering to those who need a place to stay. New sidewalks with decorative lamps and banners line the street out in front of the easternmost branch of Powell's Books.
Talk to any five people and they'll make it clear that Columbia Ridge, 30 miles north, is keeping this town alive.
Inside the general store, a reporter asks what Columbia Ridge means to the community.
A woman behind a lunch counter lists off the names of people who work at the landfill, and where they live – one person from Shaniko, another from Spray, another from Ione. Columbia Ridge supports jobs all over the plateau.
Gilliam County leaders, again and again, told the visiting Metro delegation how much they love the landfill. Outside the hotel, a chunk of beef sizzles on a pit barbecue while home-cooked beans and potatoes simmer, part of a luncheon for the visitors from Portland.
"It's important to keep our relationship because it is a special one," said Gilliam County Commissioner Dennis Gronquist. "People down there change, faces have changed but it's always very important to me to get them to come out to the county, to see what we do, where we are. It's important to see where the garbage goes."
And, Gronquist said, the people that are affected by Columbia Ridge. The landfill provides a way to fight rural flight, he said.
"It allowed us to keep our kids home," Gronquist said. His son graduated from Linfield College and has been working for Waste Management for nearly two decades.
Judge Steve Shaffer, who sits with Gronquist and Commissioner Michael Weimar on the County Court that manages county affairs, agreed with that point.
"We do have a lot of the kids that graduate high school and leave. A lot of them do. But we're able to hang on to quite a bit of it just because of this site down here and the job opportunities that are there," Shaffer said. "But … the community of Arlington, what they've done down there is entice people to come in, you have to see the golf course in Arlington. It's phenomenal. Those are the kinds of things this economic development money does."
Metro's contract to ship waste to Columbia Ridge expires at the end of 2019, a date firmly etched on the minds of Gilliam County leaders.
"We want to do whatever it takes to keep Metro, Gilliam County and Waste Management together," Shaffer said to the Metro delegation.
Fast facts about Columbia Ridge
ALONG HIGHWAY 19 – Some fast facts to consider about the Columbia Ridge landfill, before we head in:
- About 50 trucks of trash are hauled from the Portland region to Columbia Ridge daily. They carry 34 tons each, nearly a 20 percent increase from when the system started.
- The landfill handles about 7,500 tons of garbage a day. In addition to the trash from the Portland region, the 600,000 residents of Seattle send six trains weekly, each with 50-60 cars, to Columbia Ridge for disposal of trash. Some Columbia Plateau communities dump waste there as well.
- Since the landfill opened in 1990, trucks carrying garbage from Portland have burned 24 million gallons of diesel carrying trash to Columbia Ridge. The average cost for each of those 21 million gallons? $1.45.
- The landfill employs about 100 people both indirectly and directly, a huge proportion of Gilliam County's 1,900 residents. It directly contributes $2.6 million in fees to Gilliam County's budget annually.
- Overall, about 13.5 million tons of solid waste have been hauled from Metro facilities to Columbia Ridge. Ratepayers from the Portland region have paid $311 million to dump garbage at Columbia Ridge since 1990.
At the landfill itself
COLUMBIA RIDGE – Highway 19 winds atop a pale grassy ridge for the 30 miles from Condon to Gilliam County's economic powerhouse. It's a blink-if-you-miss it turn off the main road, and there's essentially no indication that you're mere feet away from a mountain filled with what Portland and Seattle have left behind.
Even at Waste Management's offices at the Columbia Ridge Landfill, there's no sign of trash – the land is littered only with sagebrush, the dry air smells only of juniper.
In part, that's by design – the landfill, which will ultimately occupy 700 acres, is about a mile north of the offices, and fences and litter crews keep the detritus to a minimum.
You can throw away your mental image of a landfill at Columbia Ridge. The truckloads of trash that are left behind daily are covered with muck and dirt at the end of the shift. Every day, the trash is sealed in, so by the time the Metro tour delegation arrived, only a few truckloads of garbage was splayed on the ground.
Windmills dot the Columbia Ridge Landfill in Gilliam County, along with a 30-foot-tall fence used to keep plastic bags from blowing off site and onto the Columbia Plateau.
About a quarter mile away, a 30-foot-tall fence snakes across the property. It's the plastic bag net – the strong Columbia Plateau winds pick up plastic bags like parachutes, but few make it past the fence.
Waste Management says it's careful to protect the land around the landfill. The railyard at the foot of the landfill is pristine, and trucks carrying waste up the ridge to the dump are covered with tarps.
"It's a full-time job having a litter crew out here picking up bags," said Bill Carr, the district operations manager for the site. As an added protection, even the 10,000 acres around the landfill belong to Waste Management as a buffer, Carr said.
Litter crews – some working for Waste Management, others serving time but working outside the jail or prison – routinely patrol the land between the Columbia Ridge entrance and Arlington. The most recognizable piece of litter on site is a deflated basketball.
"On a windy day, if you watch a trailer tip, you'll see those plastic bags take off like balloons. But Waste Management has paper pickers come in, go outside their property – clear over to Highway 19 – so they do a good job," said Gilliam County Commissioner Dennis Gronquist.
Black pipes poke through the mounds of khaki-colored dirt, but they're not ventilation. The piping is part of a system across the landfill to turn emissions into energy, using generators that produce 6.4 megawatts of electricity.
You don't smell the landfill until you're actually up on it, an unmistakable rotting scent that's familiar to anyone who's driven past large landfills elsewhere. But even inside the power plant, the smell is barely noticeable, and outside, it's tolerable on a sunny, warm October day.
Next to the generators is a facility that might be the key to Columbia Ridge's long-term survival. Waste Management is testing a technology called plasma gasification, which turns trash into fuel.
"We see a post-landfill future," said Pete Price, a Waste Management vice president who joined the Metro delegation on site.
Thinking about the future
PORTLAND – It's probably not over-the-top to say that Gilliam County is faced with a fiscal cliff in 2019, when Metro's solid waste contracts expire. If the Portland region decides to do something with its trash other than bury it under the sage and windmills on the Columbia Plateau, Gilliam County would take a significant economic hit.
Metro is planning on putting the region's waste disposal up for bid in a competitive process, a process that could include new ways to get rid of the region's trash. A company, for example, could propose to turn garbage into energy somewhere closer to Portland. If its plan was feasible and inexpensive, it might give Columbia Ridge a run for its money in the bidding process.
Until that decision comes, Gilliam County is likely to keep welcoming Metro with open arms, showing that trucks full of garbage can also be full of hope for one rural community.