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Something stinks in North Plains: the county's composting politics


Five days before Christmas, I witnessed a public shafting of North Plains.  This small town, a farm field from Pumpkin Ridge Golf course, is the site of a composting center for yard and food waste from Portland, which lies 20 miles to the east. 

     Over the past three years the stink from the composting plant has become a noxious reality for residents of this community and anyone downwind from the plant.  It should never have been located next to a city.  And Portland’s trash has no business being dumped anywhere in Washington County. 

     In December 2011, the county commissioners gave Recology/Natures Needs (the composting center operator), a one-year reprieve to change their practices and end the stink.  After two hours of listening to local citizens complain about the stink three weeks ago, it’s clear the delay has not resulted in the ending of the stink.

     To be fair, Recology is in a pickle here.  They are doing the best job they can in an impossible location.  They inherited this mess when they bought out the site’s previous owner.  The solution is to relocate to a more appropriate venue, not to pretend the stink can be mitigated. 

     But the motion before the board, recommended by its staff, was to give the owners an additional month to accomplish a miracle that hadn't been successful in a year.  The local citizens wanted the plant closed now not a delayed decision. Based on the record, they were right. 

     The county board, however, is part of a political network that includes Portland and Metro elites committed to so-called regional solutions.  But why do such regional solutions end up being foisted on an unsuspecting rural community miles from Portland?

     None of the commissioners live anywhere near North Plains so the stink doesn't invade their air passages, their children's lungs, their businesses or their county offices in Hillsboro.  I've smelled the stench many times as I drove by North Plains at all times of the year. 

     If the plant was located near Beaverton, Tigard or Hillsboro the upper-income NIMBY's in those cities would be out in force demanding an end to the stink.  But the common folks who own small businesses and/or live in rural Washington County can just be ignored. 

     And we wonder why people don't trust government! 

     Aside from Commissioner Bob Terry, whose district includes North Plains and who voted to terminate the contract in December, the board's condescension to the citizens of North Plains is the real "stinker" here. 

     My bet is in late January the board will have a plan to keep the center alive with the promise of "less stink."  The board will have two motions before it on Jan. 22. Both are unacceptable.

1. Stop accepting all food waste.

2. Continue the test period for eight months, ending the acceptance of commercial food waste by April and allowing residentially-generated food waste after that time.  If the test period proves successful, Recology will then be provided with permission to accept residentially generated food waste on a permanent basis.

            Ending food waste is only part of the problem.  The recycling center should never have been located next to North Plains.  Ceasing commercial food waste in April but allowing residential generated food waste is not the solution.  Let Portland dump its garden materials and food waste somewhere in Multnomah County. 

What smells is the power structure of Washington County which has no problem with the "big stink” — Intel dumping landfill on prime farm land or building four-lane roads through major housing developments. 

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus, Department of Politics and Government, Pacific University. Read his blogs at russdondero.squarespace.com.