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Portland needs to take out its own garbage

Composting site should be closer to the Rose City

Often when I've traveled the Sunset Highway, I've smelled noxious odors coming from the north side of Highway 26 while passing North Plains.

But I didn't know what was causing the stench. North Plains has an annual garlic festival but that smell wasn't garlic any Italian would recognize!

I learned the odor came from a large recycling center that takes food waste from Portland. The rural facility, and its impact on the adjacent community of 10,000 people, was the hottest topic on the agenda before Washington County Commissioners in their final meeting of 2011.

While some might think the community response as a typical Not in My Backyard reaction, as a member of the Washington County Citizen's Action Network (WC-CAN), I can tell you it was far more complicated than that.

As the metro area population grows during the next 20 years, we will need more recycling and compost centers like this. Why this site was chosen by the county in collaboration with Portland is hard to figure out.

The composting site is in unincorporated Washington County, giving the county jurisdiction over this site. However, it's adjacent to North Plains on the east side of Glencoe Road - the main artery into North Plains from the Sunset Highway.

With a recent air inversion in the metro area caused by cold weather with none of the normal winds from the west, the 'stench' smell just sat around the little town and environs.

During the work session it was clear that county staff had 'dug in,' supporting making the composting station a permanent fixture while two of the four commissioners in attendance raised serious questions about the immediate smell factor and how it might be mitigated.

Lurking over the discussion like the elephant in the room was what kind of precedent this might make, not only for North Plains, but also in the metro region. My testimony in the evening session pleaded that we think about the long term: the next 20 years.

Fortunately, after lots of discussion in both the work session and given the testimony from community folks from North Plains and others, the commissioners made the decision to extend a probationary contract until the end of 2012.

As in our nation's capitol, this is akin to 'kicking the can' down the road. But it will give the company, an employee-owned entity, time to work with the county on a month-to-month basis to see what can be done about the stench with a final decision to be made in December 2012.

A lot of good came out of this decision. The county commissioners listened to the wider community; there was no behind-the-scenes deal. The concept of citizen participation as envisioned by Oregon's seminal land use law Senate Bill 100, a legacy of Tom McCall, was honored in spirit and practice this time.

The logic of recycling and composting is our future. But where such sites are located is the big question before us. I don't feel dumping 80 thousand tons per year of yard debris and food waste generated from Portland in a location 25 miles from downtown Portland. It doesn't make any sense.

The obvious question is why aren't the cities and counties in the metro area working with Metro to designate appropriate sites to promote recycling and composing nearer to the community of source?

Let me use the metaphor of Occupy Portland: The Portland power structure should 'occupy' their own waste, rather than outsourcing it to Washington County or beyond.

As the metro area grows, this is not just a Portland problem, it's a regional issue demanding the attention of Metro like we plan for green spaces, the zoo and light rail. We know everything we do in the private and public sectors is interconnected -so let's craft a regional solution.

Right now, the stench from North Plains is the canary in the mineshaft. Let's tackle the long-term issue to prevent another 'big stench' coming to your neighborhood.

Russ Dondero is professor emeritus in Pacific University's Department of Politics and Government. Read his blog at www.russdondero.squarespace.com.