Learning Plenty by Talking Trash

[As I See it column from Corvallis Gazette-Times]

A big thanks to all of the hardworking volunteers who participated in the Benton County Talks Trash workgroup and biweekly committee meetings for the past six months.

A big round of applause to our commissioners, who had the forethought to envision the process, and to our county staff, whose job it was to provide information and collect committee and workgroup input in a useful form.

Now that we are nearing the end of the process, what have we learned?

A lot!

First, we’ve learned that there is no emergency that would require landfill expansion. Benton County residents need not fear that their garbage will go uncollected anytime soon.

The workgroup has established that Benton County’s contract with our waste haulers will ensure that garbage will be collected — no matter what happens with the landfill — for the next 10 years. And that agreement determines the maximum amount that rates can rise, landfill or no landfill, expansion or no expansion.

Second, we’ve learned that the Benton County residents are guaranteed space for 75,000 tons of trash annually in the current landfill agreement, which should last until the year 2039, without any expansion beyond the planned opening of Cell No. 6, leased short term to Knife River as a quarry.

Again, a contract protects landfill availability to all residents of Benton County and controls rates, landfill or no landfill, expansion or no expansion.

Third, we learned that Benton County contributes only about 7% of the trash going into the landfill; 40% originates outside the five counties covered by this regional landfill. It’s within the power of the landfill operator to divert that waste to other sites.

New legislation at the state and federal level could incentivize greater recycling. Either of these actions could extend the life of the landfill, to 2050, 2060 or even longer without an additional expansion.

Fourth, we’ve learned that this high rate of waste flow has been significantly damaging to North Benton County. The landfill has grown dramatically in the past few years due to landfill closures in other counties and consumers’ choice of online shopping, with its inherent excess packaging.

Coffin Butte is visible for miles around; decomposing trash emits landfill fumes, including methane, carried by valley winds for miles in each direction. Its leachate puts polychlorinated biphenyls and per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (toxic forever chemicals) into groundwater and streams.

It’s a heavy industrial site serviced by hundreds of trucks a day, including 30 tanker trucks taking leachate to the Corvallis Water Treatment plant — again, daily. These heavy trucks make local roads (especially Highway 99) more dangerous to drive or bike, damage roadbeds and leave a lot of trash on roadsides and nearby farms.

The county is poised to hire outside consultants to prepare a new Sustainable Materials Management Plan, based on content recommendations from the workgroup. This plan will put experts to work answering questions that community volunteers have been asking for a while.

Some of those unanswered questions include why the last expansion proposal was unanimously denied by the Planning Commission. These questions touched on health issues, the impacts of the landfill on wildlife, the suitability of the site for landfilling due to concerns related to climate change, wildfire dangers, the safety of our air/water/soil.

These and other questions need to be answered before we know whether another expansion of the landfill is the right choice for Benton County.

In the meantime, a big thanks to everybody who participated. This was a necessary discussion to start, and we in the community are so happy that it has begun.

Camille Hall

Camille Hall lives in Lewisburg with her husband, Jim, and Toby the cat, and has a master’s degree in K-12 education from Oregon State University. She has been interested in Coffin Butte Landfill since touring the facility in 1998 with students from Garfield Elementary School, and has attended many Benton County Talks Trash meetings in person and on Zoom since they began last September.