When Metro South opened to the public on April 11, 1983, the facility was literally jaw-dropping. One customer was so excited to use the station, he briefly lost his set of false teeth into the garbage pit.
The incident was the only operation stoppage on an otherwise productive day, which marked the beginning of a 40-year service to provide a temporary place to hold waste and recycling before transporting materials elsewhere.
The facility located in Oregon City, then called the Clackamas Transfer and Recycling center, was expected to handle up to 800 tons of waste every day. By December of 1983, it would handle over 1,000 tons on its busiest days.
Metro South superintendent Matt Tracy said plans for the site started back in August 1977, when the Oregon City Planning Commission amended their comprehensive plan to allow for resource recovery facilities, such as garbage incinerators.
In 1982, Metro started construction on the facility which was to include a transfer center, incinerator and steam pipeline to power the Publishers Paper Company at Willamette Falls. In November of that year, voters in Oregon City, Gladstone and West Linn all approved city charter amendments blocking a garbage burning plant.
“We basically built the transfer station with the intent of burning garbage on site that was canceled by a vote of the public,” Tracy said.
With only the garbage pit complete, Metro focused on turning the site solely into a transfer and recycling center.
Small site, big responsibilities
The region was facing a garbage crisis. The regional waste management authority, then known as the Metropolitan Service District, was responsible for solid waste management in greater Portland, and nearly all the landfills in the region were closed or almost full. Metro spent several years trying to open new landfills, to no success. Greater Portland was running out of space to dump its trash.
As local landfills began to close, transfer stations became a key component to manage waste which would have to travel farther from the Portland area to be landfilled.
While Metro South was not initially designed to be a transfer station, it made do with its small footprint to serve regional garbage needs. Many of the people who came to dump trash on the first day used to get rid of their stuff at Rossman’s landfill across the street, which had closed to the public.
Marc Comstock has worked to maintain operations at both Metro transfer stations over the last 30 years. Comstock says the site went through multiple expansions to cover operational needs. “We have pieces that were added on and added on,” he said.
In 1990, Metro extended a large bay for receiving waste. The next year, the St. Johns landfill, which was the last open landfill in Multnomah County, closed.
In 1992, Metro South began to receive household hazardous waste at the newly built facility on site. Hazardous waste technicians helped people dispose of common household materials, like paint, cleaners and batteries. These materials pose human and environmental risks if thrown or flushed away.
The paint received at the hazardous waste facility could be recycled into new paint through Metro’s latex program, which began at Metro South in 1997. This innovative program, now called MetroPaint, positioned Metro to be a key player in 2010, when Oregon enacted a law requiring leftover paint to be recycled and reused.
The Willamette Valley flood of 1996
The winter of 1995-96 brought heavy rains that saturated the ground. A late snowfall in January was followed by warm subtropic air that melted the snowpack on February 6, 1996. This combination of weather events led to heavy flooding over the course of hours.
The Willamette River reached 10 feet over its flood stage, or the level where water overflow can cause damage to the local areas. Over 21,840 people were evacuated, and parts of downtown Oregon City were submerged for days.
Kendall Walden started as a technician at the hazardous waste facility in 1992. During the flood he was called in to help move items to higher storage. Floodwaters began to pour into the area as he worked.
“It started as a trickle and then got bigger and bigger and bigger, and then it was like about ankle deep. Next thing you know, it's knee deep,” Walden said. The team quickly mobilized to remove as much stuff as they could.
By the next day, the hazardous waste facility was completely underwater. Walden and others worked out of rented boats – fishing for cans of paint and empty hazardous waste drums that had floated down the river.
After the water receded, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality spearheaded cleanup efforts and Metro built a retaining wall to mitigate future flood events. Walden remembers collecting hazardous waste from a tent that was set up next to the transfer station scales while the hazardous waste facility was being rebuilt.
Looking to the future
Metro South continued to expand by building another large receiving bay in 2000, but then lost some of the site footprint to Oregon City road improvement projects in 2010. While the number of tons of trash needing disposal continues to grow, the site hasn’t been able to expand operations since.
The site has weathered forest fires, extreme heat events, ice storms and wind storms that have ripped the sheet metal off the buildings. And through it all, it continues to serve the public.
“Just given the footprint and everything that we've got going on here, I think we're trying to operate as best we can,” Tracy said. “You know, frankly, we do pretty well.”
From June 2021 to June 2022, Metro South processed over 329,000 tons of waste. According to Comstock, a majority of this is from mom-and-pop business owners and members of the public who need a place to dispose of bulky items.
The once-sodden hazardous waste facility is now the busiest facility of its kind in the nation, according to Joe Tharpe, Metro South assistant site superintendent.
In 2020, Metro began the search to relocate Metro South to a new site, one that would allow traffic to flow safely through the footprint – no matter how many customers were there – and provide more space to separate out reusable and repairable items – to keep high-quality materials out of landfills.
But, like the thwarted landfill siting efforts in the 1970s and 80s, Metro wasn’t able to secure land for a new location and has paused the search.
Now Metro is looking at the entire regional transfer, recycling, reuse and repair network through the Garbage and Recycling System Facilities Plan. The plan aims to create a comprehensive garbage and recycling infrastructure investment strategy to improve services for the region.
What is certain for Metro South staff is that whatever comes their way, they’ll adapt. For Walden, the story of Metro South is a story of resiliency.
“We get hit with challenges, we make it work,” he said. “And that's what I'm proud of. That's what's kept me here for 31 years.”