Secrecy shrouds Lake County’s plan to build Oregon’s largest landfill

By Joni Auden Land (OPB)
July 12, 2022 12 p.m.

As Oregon faces a wave of landfill closures in coming decades, a group of mysterious investors hope to cash in on Lake County officials’ willingness to become a destination for waste.

Terry Crawford usually knows what’s going on in northern Lake County, one of Oregon’s most remote regions. She heads the Christmas Valley Chamber of Commerce, produces a monthly newsletter and serves on the county planning commission.


But it was only a few weeks ago that she first heard of plans to build Oregon’s largest landfill somewhere among the sagebrush she calls home. She saw a post about it on Facebook.

The Knott Landfill, July 6, 2022, is the sole landfill in Deschutes County and is anticipated to be full by 2029, necessitating closure.

The Knott Landfill, July 6, 2022, is the sole landfill in Deschutes County and is anticipated to be full by 2029, necessitating closure.

Joni Land / OPB

“I’d say there’s a huge lack of transparency,” Crawford said at her Christmas Valley home. “How is it going to benefit us?”

Lake County leaders, state officials and a private consultant held multiple closed-door meetings concerning a new regional landfill as early as January 2021. But those behind the project have yet to disclose key details about where it might be built, how many people it would employ and how it could impact the environment, even as they take steps to purchase property.

Even less has been divulged about the group of investors promising to finance — and presumably profit — from such a landfill. The public face of this group, Don Jensen of Salem, won’t disclose his financial backers. Jensen himself has little experience siting new landfills, except for one in Idaho with a history of state violations.

Lake County’s plan comes as landfills across Oregon are expected to close in upcoming decades, leaving many communities looking east for places to send future generations’ waste.

Growing demand

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates at least seven landfills in Oregon will close by 2050, although exact closure dates can fluctuate.

It’s been nearly 30 years since Oregon sited a new landfill, and it’s unlikely the state will ever approve another facility in the Willamette Valley, its most populous region. That’s because of the area’s extremely wet conditions, said Shane Latimer, an environmental planner in Portland who specializes in landfill permitting for SCS Engineers.

“We will eventually be exporting most of our trash to the eastern drier parts of Oregon,” Latimer said.

Across the state, local governments are opting to ship their garbage to several large regional landfills. Where there used to be more than 100 smaller landfills across Oregon, there are now only several regional facilities, Latimer said.

Lake County’s vision includes serving areas as nearby as neighboring Klamath and Deschutes counties, and those hundreds of miles away, like Marion County and Portland metro locales.

Jensen, the developer, has proposed buying about 8,000 acres, with around 1,000 of that initially permitted for the landfill.

This scale would make it the largest landfill in either Oregon or Washington.

Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson sees an opportunity to create local jobs in a part of Oregon starving for industry.

“It’s extremely important,” Albertson said of the project. “A million and a half bucks (in annual host fees), plus anything else that we can get to provide services throughout the county, is very important.”

An empty storefront in downtown Lakeview, Oregon. Local leaders are hoping a new regional landfill can boost the area's lagging economy. July 6, 2022.

An empty storefront in downtown Lakeview, Oregon. Local leaders are hoping a new regional landfill can boost the area's lagging economy. July 6, 2022.

Joni Land / OPB

The county’s roughly 8,000 residents mostly rely on timber and agriculture, he said, but reductions in those industries have severely limited job opportunities for residents.

Sitting in his office in the county seat of Lakeview, Albertson pointed out a row of empty storefronts, some with windows covered in newspaper, others bearing signs that read, “I believe in Lakeview.”

“People might think what we ship most of is timber and hay, but in reality, we’re sending our kids out, because there’s nowhere for them to work,” he said.

Unanswered questions

When Don Jensen pitched Lake County commissioners on a landfill plan last year, he didn’t have to worry about competition.

The commissioners signed a memorandum of understanding with Jensen in June 2021, without shopping the idea around to other developers.

A month earlier, Jensen and his attorney produced a draft of the agreement in order to avoid a more public process, emails to county officials show. Governments typically solicit competitive bids on major projects, so companies can make public proposals for those contracts. In this case, the county isn’t paying Jensen any money, and Jensen said a bid is not needed because he’s assuming the financial risk.

“We think that Lake County is a prime location for our regional landfill,” Jensen told commissioners at the time. “We think it would really benefit the folks from Christmas Valley.”

In exchange, “the county agrees… to expedite the (permitting) review” for the landfill, according to its agreement with Jensen, although it’s unclear what that will entail.

Albertson said he still does not know who Jensen’s business partners are. He also has not received a business plan, despite him and Oregon Governor Kate Brown’s office asking for one multiple times.

Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson

Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson

Courtesy of Lake County

Commissioners have held just one public meeting about the project so far.

Jensen’s connections to the Oregon waste industry appear scant. His only previous landfill experience was at the Simco Road Regional Landfill, outside Boise, Idaho. He said he oversaw the opening of a new section of that facility in 2014.

The Idaho landfill caught on fire multiple times. The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality fined it $20,000 for multiple violations in 2019. One report noted that in 2018, “it appeared free liquids were being poured into a dump truck bed, which then released the liquids to the landfill.”

The violations also noted the landfill had failed to resolve years of previous violations dating back to 2012.

Jensen said issues with the Idaho landfill existed before he became involved, and that the facility has “made great strides to get everything into compliance.”

His personal finances appear to have been littered with unpaid debts. Jensen filed for bankruptcy in 2010 after owing hundreds of thousands of dollars in back taxes to the IRS, as well as state and local governments. He also failed to pay back a small business loan he took out in 2006 for his film production company, Dirtpoor Films, costing taxpayers nearly $50,000, according to the Statesman Journal.

Jensen said he, like many other developers, was hit hard by the Great Recession, as he had many housing projects underway at the time.

How qualified his partners are now remains unknown — Jensen repeatedly declined to name any of them. And as for a business plan, Jensen said it will be drafted after purchasing a property.

“If at the end of the day, this doesn’t work, we’ll own a big chunk of land,” he said.

Buying the land

Jensen and his partners recently entered into negotiations to buy several thousand acres in northern Lake County for $9 million.

Ken Hufford, a rancher in Fort Rock, said he pulled out of the deal after he could not find a replacement property for his ranch.

County officials have mulled numerous other ways to purchase enough land to make the landfill viable, such as buying it from the Oregon Department of State Lands or private timber companies, emails obtained by OPB show.

Jensen said he and his partners expect to purchase property within the next two months. He said engineers and geologists will survey prospective sites first to make sure they are suitable, but acknowledged there’s still a risk.

“We really couldn’t have asked for a better spot, it’s just one of those ideal locations,” Jensen said of northern Lake County. “There could be something that could pop up, and we’re just back at ground zero.”

Latimer, the environmental planner, said it’s highly unusual for a developer to purchase land before receiving the necessary approvals from state regulators.

That’s because just one of many factors — endangered species, proximity to airports, water rights, or the presence of cultural resources — can each kill a project before it even begins.

State agencies shared some of those concerns, emails show. Greg Svelund with the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality wrote to colleagues in February 2021, saying that any landfill would face a “daunting” process to receiving the required permits.

“There are many technical aspects an applicant needs to address,” Svelund wrote. “There’s a reason this hasn’t happened in Oregon in several decades.”

And even though Latimer predicts Oregon’s garbage will eventually go east, he said many landfills currently have enough capacity to last for the next fifty years. He’s not sure the market demand exists, especially with a large landfill in Arlington already in operation.

Even state agencies noted that Arlington’s landfill, currently the largest in the state, has at least 150 years of lifespan remaining.

“Begs the question of why do they need another?” Larry Holzgang of Business Oregon wrote in an email to other officials.

Jensen and Lake County have placed heavy emphasis on receiving garbage from Central Oregon’s Deschutes County, where a landfill is set to close in 2029. The county is among the fastest growing in the state.

But that’s looking more and more unlikely, as Deschutes County is several years into plans to build its own landfill.

Portions of northern Lake County are also home to sage grouse habitat and the county has a moratorium on new water rights due to a declining aquifer. Both issues are potential roadblocks to a future landfill.

For Lake County resident and planning commissioner Terry Crawford, the lack of a public process surrounding the project is the latest instance of a county government failing to listen to the concerns of its more remote residents.

Terry Crawford, next to her horse Ben, at her home in Christmas Valley. She moved to the area 16 years ago, but is growing concerned about the potential of developers building a new landfill in the area.

Terry Crawford, next to her horse Ben, at her home in Christmas Valley. She moved to the area 16 years ago, but is growing concerned about the potential of developers building a new landfill in the area.

Joni Land / OPB

Fort Rock and Christmas Valley, near where the landfill could be built, are two hours away from the county seat. Crawford said it’s difficult to attend public meetings and many residents in the area don’t receive the local newspaper.

Information, even when publicly announced, is not easy to come by.

“There is no trust, because we’ve seen it over and over again,” Crawford said.

Correction: This article initially misspelled Terry Crawford’s name. OPB regrets the error.