Washington county splits in half over proposed dump

  • Waste Management sign

    Ken Olsen
  • Priggee cartoons

  • Farmer Gregg Beckley exhibits a bit of fractured basalt

    Ken Olsen

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Pay as you waste, says EPA.

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 Coulee.

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.

A full-time 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.

Opponents emerge

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 landfill.

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 geology.

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.

In 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.

Host 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, secretary-treasurer of OPAL.

"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 source protection.

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.

"The ink was barely dry and he was out playing the violin for them," said Brett Blankenship, Dwayne's brother.

Their 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.

"I think 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 permit.

"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 said.

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 political question."

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.

Both 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, Beckley said.

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 constructed.

"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."

Ken Olsen reports for the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

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