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North Plains: Stinkin' plant hurts business

Small shops say many driven away by compost pile stench


by: NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD Stop the Stink co-founders Tony Spierling and Marilyn Schulz discuss the problem with smells emanating from the Nature's Needs composting site in North Plains.Portland’s aggressive composting policies are raising a stink in North Plains — and critics there are afraid the problem will spread if other cities adopt similar policies.

The controversy revolves around Nature’s Needs, a large composting facility that accepts much of the Portland’s commercial food waste and residential yard debris mixed with residential food waste. It is just east of North Plans, the small community north of Hillsboro along Highway 26.

The Washington County Board of Commissioners must decide whether the facility can continue accepting food waste before the end of the year. A work session on the issue has been scheduled for Oct. 23.

Many residents and business owners charge that offensive odors frequently waft from the facility through neighborhoods and commercial areas. Ruth Peterson, who owns the Corner Deli less than a mile away, says the odors have driven customers away.

“I’ve seen people drive up outside, get out of the car, wrinkle their noses, get back in the cars and drive away,” Peterson said last week. “They’re not going somewhere else in North Plains to eat. They’re leaving town.”

Nature’s Needs operations manager Jon Thomas admits the facility had difficulty controlling odors in the past, especially last December, shortly after it began accepting Portland’s resident yard debris and food waste. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality even cited the facility for numerous violations of its state composting license in February.

But Thomas says Recology, the large recycling and resource recovery company that operates the facility, has spent millions on upgrades to reduce the problems. Recently completed work includes paving the ground where the composting occurs to better control moisture and installing odor abatement features, including large landscaped earthen berms.

“We believe we’ve made great progress in recent months,” Thomas said last week.

That’s not what the monthly odor complaint log maintained by North Plains shows, however. The log shows odor complaints jumping from a low of 54 in June to 94 in July and an all-time high of 280 in September.

Part of that increase could be because of increased public awareness, however, because of the upcoming county decision. The commission has only given Nature’s Need permission to accept food waste until the end of the year. The commission must now decide whether or not to extend the food waste permit — and if so, for how long.

A grassroots group called Stop the Stink is fighting the extension. It has collected letters in opposition from many North Plains business owners and about 500 signatures on a petition calling for it to be denied.

Co-founder Marilyn Schulz, an area farmer, says the fight is a regional issue. Some other cities have begun adopting voluntary commercial food waste recovery programs, including Beaverton, Gresham, Tigard and Lake Oswego. Schulz believes they are the first step towards adopting mandatory commercial and residential programs like those in Portland.

“If other government go this route, they’ll have to site additional composting facilities like Nature’s Needs throughout the region,” says Schulz.

Stop the Stink

Portland Mayor Sam Adams says his city is not to blame for the controversy. Although his city has aggressively pushed composting — including encouraging residents to mix food waste with the yard debris that has been composted for years — Adams says Portland does not determine where the material goes. It is delivered to Metro transfer stations and then taken to facilities with DEQ permits. In Washington County, they must also be approved by the county commission.

“We have a strong interest in protecting quality of life throughout the region, and we want to see the Nature’s Needs facility operated with as little impact on neighbors as is practical. But the city (of Portland) itself has no ability to direct where the compost goes or how it is managed,” Adams says.

DEQ officials say it is impossible to completely eliminate odors during the composting process, however.

“The materials to be composted have odors, the composting process produces odors, and the finished material has odors,” says Stephanie Rawson, the DEQ solid waste compliance specialist assigned to Nature’s Needs.

According to Rawson, her agency’s goal is to assure the odors are consistent with a properly managed composting operation.

In fact, other companies did composting on the site before Recology leased it in 2009, and there were odor problems then, too.

“Bad smells would come from there in the past,” says Tony Spiering, a Stop the Stink co-founder who owns Valley Machine, a precision manufacturing company just down the road from Nature’s Need.

Spiering, Peterson, Schulz and others all agree the odors have gotten stronger and more frequent in recent years, however. Despite the attention focused on Portland’s food waste, that may be because Nature’s Needs is handling a far larger quantity of material than any of the previous owners. Recology is the seventh largest recycling and resource recovery company in the country.

Thomas admits the facility was inadequate for the workload when Recology first took it over in 2009. The ground was muddy, some of it requiring hip waders to cross. It was also flat, allowing odors to blow freely toward Highway 26 and populated areas. In December 2011, an inversion layer trapped odors in the areas for weeks, triggering 100 complaints the next month, the previous high.

The DEQ conducted on-site inspections on Jan. 11 and 12, finding numerous violations of its composting permit. It sent Recology a “Warning Letter With an Opportunity to Correct” on Feb. 1, 2012. Among other things, the letter expressed concerns about uncovered piles of material, standing water and poor drainage.

Much work has clearly been done to comply with the letter during the past 18 months. In addition to the paving, a drainage system has been installed in the high-moisture area and wind breaks have been built. Still, when the material is turned during the composting process, musty odors are released with large clouds of steam — which Thomas says is natural.

Environmental benefits

Spiering insists he is not against composting or even Nature’s Need. He just believes the facility is too close to a population center.

“I know a composting facility is going to smell,” Spierling says. “That’s just the nature of the business. But that’s why they shouldn’t be located on the outskirts of a city. They need to be as far away from people as possible.”

Schulz agrees, and says the location issue is going become increasingly important in coming years. Schulz believes other cities want to follow Portland’s lead on composting. But if they do, Schulz says, the volume of commercial and residential food waste will increase so much that additional composting facilities will have to be cited.

“It doesn’t make sense to site them far out of the region, where emissions from trucks hauling the material reduces the environmental benefits. But if they are cited too close to where people live and work, they’re going to have the same problem as North Plains,” says Schulz.