Standing on a gravel landing on the Riverbend Landfill near McMinnville last week, Jackie Lang of Waste Management explained her company's plans to make room for more trash.
"We're at the point now where we're almost full at the top," she said. "We're 5 to 6 feet from our top right here."
The 85-acre landfill, which takes a large helping of trash from the Portland metropolitan area, has less than two years of capacity left. Waste Management has been trying to expand the facility since 2008 to keep it open another 15 to 20 years, but expansion plans have been stymied by opponents. Now the clock is ticking.
If Riverbend can't expand to accept more garbage, the landfill will close once it reaches capacity. And that's exactly what neighbor Ramsey McPhillips and other members of the Stop The Dump Coalition are hoping for.
The reality at Riverbend is a reminder that we're still throwing out a lot of trash – even with higher recycling rates. The Metro region is diverting more than half of its waste from landfills through recycling and composting. New technologies are emerging to generate energy from garbage instead of landfilling it. But the amount of garbage going to landfills every year is still about the same as it was two decades ago.
“We are always shooting for a high recovery percentage,” said Bob Schwarz of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality. “But if people generate twice as much waste and recycle half of it they're still where they started.”
Landfill expansions aren't all that unusual in Oregon, Schwarz said, but the one proposed for Riverbend has been pretty controversial.
McPhillips says the landfill is poorly designed and poorly situated near the Yamhill River and in the middle of otherwise idyllic Willamette Valley farms – including his own, which has been in his family for 150 years.
"It's 135 feet of towering garbage in the middle of Oregon’s signature wine country," McPhillips said. "If this landfill gets expanded, it’s over. There's no reason for me to keep farming."
Under a contract with Metro, Waste Management can take the garbage to another landfill in Arlington, about 140 miles east of Portland, after Riverbend fills up. But it's a much longer haul from Portland.
"If Riverbend were to close, it would mean we would have to truck waste hundreds of miles away, which means higher transportation costs and greenhouse gas emissions," said Lang, the communications director for Waste Management.
It would mean a loss of about of $1 million in revenue for Yamhill County, which now earns $2.60 for every ton of garbage hauled into Riverbend from outside the county. And, according to Metro, it would mean garbage bill hikes of $1.40 to $1.80 a month for ratepayers in Washington County and northwest Clackamas County.
But critics of the landfill say it would also mean less odor, less risk of environmental damage, and fewer economic impacts to nearby farms.
After losing a land-use challenge on its proposed 60-acre expansion at Riverbend, Waste Management proposed a temporary fix to keep the landfill going while it reconfigures its expansion plans. The fix involves building a berm on one side of the landfill to would create additional vertical space for garbage within the current footprint.
"We need a couple more years of space," Lang said. "We need time for our engineers to put plans on paper and for us to go through the land-use process."
Meanwhile, the company is also stepping up its community relations, pledging better odor control and offering 450 acres of buffer land around the landfill for public use.
"We recognize clearly we need to be a better neighbor, particularly when it comes to odor," said Lang. "The situation over the past few years has been unacceptable to us."
As explained in this Portland Monthly story, opponents of the landfill expansion have gotten a boost from a man who used to work at Riverbend.
Leonard Rydell says he has insider knowledge of the landfill's engineering weaknesses, and he says the landfill is leaking, that adding a berm to the landfill is risky because it's in the Yamhill River flood plain, and that the proposed berm wouldn't hold up if a large earthquake hit the the region.
Waste Management, Yamhill County and Oregon DEQ maintain the landfill is in compliance with its permits. Schwarz is reviewing the company’s application for DEQ. He said approval may depend on yet-to-come details on the exact location of the flood plain and the seismic stability of the proposed berm. The company's proposal was scaled back after DEQ raised concerns about installing a larger berm around the entire landfill.
“We told them we were concerned because in a portion of the larger proposal, the boundary would have been along the flood plain,” he said. “They proposed something more modest, and that’s what we’ve been reviewing.”
Waste Management has two big projects that promise to divert more waste from its landfills in the future. A facility in Portland it is going to start making crude oil from plastic this month, using technology developed by the Beaverton company Agilyx. In Arlington, the company is working with InEnTech of Bend to convert garbage into synthetic gas.
Lang said green technology can extend the life of landfills, but "it might be awhile before any of this technologies have an impact on the large volume of waste society is producing."