by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Workers prepare the air filtration system for a fresh pile of compost.Recology officials are scrambling to work out a plan to reduce odors from its Nature’s Needs composting plant before their permit to process food waste expires on Jan. 23.

The issue is also heading to the 2013 Oregon Legislature, with state Sen. Bruce Starr (R-Hillsboro) planning to convene a meeting on it at the capitol next week before introducing a bill relating to the location of future composting plants.

Two options for the composting plant just outside of North Plains were discussed during Tuesday’s Washington County commission meeting. Commissioners issued the original permit that expired at the end of 2012. The commission granted the company a one-month extension to finalize a plan to reduce the offensive odors that prompted nearly 1,300 complaints from around 300 area residents last year.

One option proposed by Recology officials would change how the plant operates. It would no longer accept commercial food waste, which made up about 35 percent of the material processed at the plant last year. The company is also considering adding an overnight shift to perform some of the work most likely to release odors, such as turning and moving partly decomposed waste piles as part of the composting process.

And Recology would hire an independent monitor to track the odors coming from the plant.

Recology officials proposed that commission extend its permit until September with these conditions to determine of the odors are reduced to a satisfactory level.

The other option proposed by county staff at the work session would simply not extend the permit, allowing it to expire on Jan. 23. Recology officials would still be able to process green material such as clean yard debris at the plant, although such a limited operation might not be economically viable.

Legislative solution

Most of the commissioners did not indicate which option they favored during the work session. Washington County Chair Andy Duyck has already said he opposes extending the permit. Commissioner Bob Terry seemed to favor extending it until September with Recology’s proposed changes. The other three members — Greg Malinowski, Roy Roger and Dick Schouten — did not voice a preference for either option.

Terry said he had discussed the situation with Starr, however, and suggested a legislative solution was in the works.

Starr, whose district includes North Plains, says he supports composting food waste instead of burying it in landfills.

“I think everyone agrees that recycling food waste is the best thing,” says Starr, who recently toured the Nature’s Needs facility.

But Starr believes the situation in North Plains proves that the state must step in and guarantee that composting plants not be sited near residential communities. Starr says he does not have a specific proposal in mind yet, but argues that the Legislature has a track record of resolving how to site nuisances, such as power lines in rural areas.

“There are a lot of Not In My Back Yard issues that the Legislature has addressed in the past,” Starr said.

Starr plans to hold a meeting with stakeholders and others interested in the issue when the Legislature meets to organize next week. Lawmakers are scheduled to gather in Salem from Monday to Wednesday to elect presiding officers and conduct other preliminary business before adjourning until February, when the session begins in earnest.

Starr hopes to hold the meeting on Wednesday, but a final schedule has not been set.

Searching for an alternative

State and Metro policies call for food waste to be diverted from landfills. That goal is part of larger plans to reduce the amount of material sent to landfills. Residents and businesses in the state have substantially increased the amount of the trash they recycle over the years, largely because of these policies. Food waste — both commercial and residential — is one of the last large garbage streams still going into landfills.

In addition to Portland, Beaverton and Gresham have recently started programs to encourage that food-related businesses to divert their food waste from landfills. Beaverton’s program started last September with funding from Metro. It encourages food-related businesses to donate and compost food they do not use.

Recology has transported food waste and yard debris to the Nature’s Need plant from Metro’s Central Transfer Station in industrial Northwest Portland. Metro, the regional government, contracts with Recology to operate the station and arrange for the materials it receives to be disposed of.

Odor problems became a public issue in October 2011, around the time that the city of Portland instituted its curbside composting program. It encourages residents to dispose of food waste by mixing it with yard debris.

Recology has also been also been mixing commercial food waste from Portland businesses with the yard debris and residential food waste at the station. The commercial food waste comes from restaurants, grocery stories and food processors under another Portland program. Metro records show that about a fourth of all the compostable material being transferred from the station to the North Plains plant is commercial food waste.

Recology officials hope that diverting the commercial food waste to another facility will go a long ways toward reducing the odor problem.

by: HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Piles of compost create steam on top of a newly paved section of the Nature´s Needs composting plant.“Commercial food waste is one of the more difficult waste streams to manage. We are considering diverting it from the North Plains plant if we can find another green facility to accommodate it,” says Recology Vice President Paul Yamamoto.

Since the odor problems became an issue, Yamamoto says his company has invested around $5 million in the North Plains plant to improve its operation. Investments include paving the surface where materials are deposited for composting, installing a draining system to divert unwanted moisture from the compost problems and drawing air from the piles through filters as the process occurs.

The improvements have not stopped the complaints, however, forcing Recology to propose diverting the commercial food waste to another location. The company does not know where that will be, however. Yamamoto says it should be relatively close to Portland to reduce transportation costs and emissions.

Several commissions said they want to know where Recology plans to send the commercial food waste before voting whether to accept the proposed changes and extend the permit. Recology has other facilities near Aumsville, McMinnville and Seattle. Much of Portland’s commercial food had been trucked to the plant near Portland before Recology began processing it at Nature’s Needs.

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