HOOPER, Wash.- Burying Seattle's garbage in rural eastern Washington is like putting a toilet in a refrigerator, according to cartoonist Milt Priggee of the Spokane, Wash., Spokesman Review.
That sums up the feeling of
opponents of a mega-dump Waste Management Inc. wants to build about
95 miles southwest of Spokane. In early January, the Adams County
commissioners voted 2-1 to grant Waste Management a land-use permit
for the landfill. Though there are other hurdles, the company
already has contracts to bring 1,650 tons of squeeze cheese
wrappers, empty deodorant containers, used coffee filters and other
household trash to the landfill every day from cities and counties
across Washington and northern Idaho. Seattle alone would send
420,000 tons a year to this grassy draw, locally known as Holiday
The landfill would cover between 450
and 550 acres and handle 4,000 tons of garbage a day for 50 to 75
years. Adams County would get free trash disposal and $300,000 a
year in host fees.
WMX, as Waste Management was
recently renamed, is the world's largest garbage handler and has
spared nothing to win support for the project. It hired Northwest
Strategies, one of Seattle's most successful public relations
firms, to sell the regional dump.
public relations agent and a Waste Management engineer moved to the
area about four years ago to lobby county commissioners and leaders
of the area's economically depressed towns. Waste Management's
marketing team even acknowledges "helping" locals write to the
"letters to the editor" section of area newspapers, voicing support
for the project.
They aggressively market the
environmental virtues of the company's state-of-the-art landfill
and economic virtues of the 30 to 50 jobs the dump would provide.
"We are going to develop a
landfill that's safer than any in Washington because of location,
design, redundant monitoring systems, a drain system and a double
liner," said Scott Cave, the Northwest Strategies public relations
representative working on the project. "Adams County is going to
net $2 million a year in direct economic benefits."
Part of what makes this landfill attractive are
tough new Environmental Protection Agency standards. Commonly
called Subtitle D regulations, they force cities and towns to
significantly upgrade their garbage dumps, recognizing the role of
trash disposal in groundwater pollution. Compliance costs are so
high that many smaller counties and towns are closing their
landfills and contracting with companies like Waste Management to
take out the trash.
Waste Management has a
giant landfill near Arlington, Ore., where it takes garbage from
Seattle, Portland and other communities. But when it won the
contract for Seattle's garbage, Waste Management also promised to
find a Washington home for it by January 1995. Eastern Washington
came to mind because it's dry. That means there are fewer problems
with precipitation making its way through the dump and into the
groundwater, proponents argue.
The site is
close to Union Pacific Railroad lines, making the long haul more
economical. Seattle residents are enamored because the city's
contract with Waste Management says they can save $1 million a year
in disposal fees if the trash is taken to eastern Washington
instead of northern Oregon.
A small but feisty group called
the Organization to Preserve Agricultural Lands (OPAL) is showing
itself a mighty opponent. It hired a hydrogeological consultant to
dispute Waste Management's data about the site and filed a lawsuit
Feb. 9 against Waste Management, the Adams County commissioners and
the landowners who have sold real estate options for the dump. OPAL
alleges the county commissioners effectively sold the land-use
permit in return for a percentage of the disposal fees and for free
garbage disposal in violation of state law. The suit also charges
the environmental review was faulty and that a county commissioner
improperly lobbied people to support the
OPAL hands out literature at county
fairs and trades jabs with Waste Management in full-page newspaper
advertisements. Composed of farmers, citizens and local garbage
haulers, OPAL fears a dump will ruin the area's agricultural image
and ability to sell wheat. OPAL believes eastern Washington is the
pick of the litter because of its few people and scant political
clout, not necessarily because of climate or
The promises of new jobs are specious,
OPAL says. When Waste Management moved into rural Oregon, all the
new landfill did was beckon farmhands to jobs with better benefits
and better hours, said Laura Pryor, Gilliam County judge and chair
of the county commission.
With nobody moving to
the area to take the lower-paying, more demanding agricultural
jobs, "the ranching community is now having a very difficult time
finding people to work," adds Pryor, whose family ranches. Waste
Management, which she likes working with, is not to blame. "Very
frankly, none of us foresaw this," she said.
retrospect, the Gilliam County Commissioners should have sat down
with cattlemen and wheatgrowers and "thought this through, (asking)
can we do recruiting for people to work on farms and ranches as
well," Pryor said.
fees an issue
Opposition in Adams County also
centers on how much money will go to county coffers. The $300,000
annual host fee, part of a 50-page agreement between Waste
Management and the county, is meager, argues Brett Blankenship,
"It's an outrage to be
sold down the river, let alone for the lowest host fees in the
country," he said. Gilliam County receives $1 million a year.
The Adams County site is no good for garbage
because it sits over fractured basalt and a system of
inter-connected aquifers that provide drinking water for a large
region, OPAL spokesmen say. They point to a ring of artesian wells
in the region to make their case.
At a minimum,
Adams County should have forced Waste Management to do more
extensive testing before granting the land-use permit, OPAL says.
An independent consultant hired by the county agreed, and some
additional tests are a condition of the permit.
The Palouse-Clearwater Environmental Institute, based in Moscow,
Idaho, is petitioning the EPA to designate the underlying
groundwater a sole-source aquifer. To qualify, the aquifer must
provide 50 percent of the drinking water to an area that does not
have a readily available alternative, explains Tom Lamar, the
institute's executive director. He believes it's a natural for sole
Washington law prohibits
landfills over sole source aquifers. But the EPA may not rule on
the sole-source designation before dump construction is well under
way. And Waste Management could get a waiver if it can convince
state regulators that there is no threat to groundwater.
Even if the environmental costs can be
mitigated, the strife may linger for generations. Soon after Dwayne
Blankenship Jr. split from his family's farming corporation, he
sold an option on his home, 4.5 miles from the proposed landfill,
to Waste Management.
was barely dry and he was out playing the violin for them," said
Brett Blankenship, Dwayne's brother.
mother, Beulah Blankenship, doesn't speak to her brother, Syd
Sullivan, anymore. That's because Sullivan, a former mayor of
nearby Washtucna, actively supports the landfill.
Gregg Beckley, a fifth-generation wheat farmer
and president of OPAL, received a death threat for his opposition
to the project.
myself and a lot of people feel similar to what a victim of a
violent crime feels - we haven't faced the physical damage, but the
emotional effects are there," Beckley said. "The city of Seattle
has, in essence, written a contract on us and allowed Waste
Management to come in and prey on these small communities."
Cave, Waste Management's public relations
representative, accuses Blankenship Farms of opposing the project
simply because the family couldn't sell its operation to Waste
Management for a high enough price. Brett Blankenship acknowledges
his family put a price on their property after Waste Management
pestered them several times. But the idea was to hand Waste
Management a price tag so large that the company would go away, he
said. "We chose to fight. We never had any intention of selling."
Waste Management upset a wider circle of county
residents when the news leaked out that the company is courting a
consortium of British Columbia towns for a long-term garbage
disposal contract. While some might tolerate waste from the other
side of the state, Canadian garbage is decidedly unwelcome.
That information had not been shared with
county officials, said Dean Judd, chairman of the Adams County
Commission and the only one to vote against the land-use
"We had no idea," he
said. "We had to find out from other means."
One of the most contentious disagreements has been over suggestions
that Adams County put the landfill to an advisory vote. "The law
doesn't allow land-use decisions based on a one-time popularity
contest," said Waste Management's Cave. Instead decisions like this
are supposed to be based on science. Environmental impact
statements and other reviews deliver that scientific analysis, Cave
OPAL and other opponents say Waste
Management knows it can persuade two or three county commissioners
to go along with the landfill, but can't sell it to an entire
county. "This isn't a scientific question," Beckley said. "It's a
Some people are beginning
to suspect Waste Management never seriously intended to build a
dump in Adams County. Instead, they think Waste Management may be
using it as leverage to get better deals for its existing
operations. Beckley, the OPAL president, believes Waste Management
can use the prospect of a competing Washington landfill to persuade
Oregon officials to give the garbage company preferential
treatment. That includes allowing the company to take more of
Portland's garbage business or getting rid of contract provisions
that give Portland the lowest rate Waste Management offers anyone
sending trash to the Arlington landfill.
of those issues are being negotiated between Waste Management and
the city of Portland. The fear of losing jobs and revenue - caused
by garbage going to Adams County instead of Oregon - may be Waste
Management's most persuasive tool for getting the changes it wants,
Waste Management must probe the
geology further and secure an operating permit from the Adams
County Health District. Most people consider these easy hurdles.
But Cave says Waste Management already has $5 million invested in
the project and may have to spend another $4 million just to get
the operating permit. "We will look at the conditions put on us to
see if this still makes sense economically," Cave said. "This just
isn't a done deal."
Both sides agree on that
point, although Blankenship says his farming family is adamant:
"The flaws in the site will never allow the landfill to be
"My dad feels
pretty bad, like his life's work is down the drain," he said. "But
the time comes when you end the dog-and-pony show and get before an
impartial judge who doesn't care about Waste Management's public
relations campaign." n
Olsen reports for the Moscow-Pullman Daily