Plant will no longer be taking commercial food wastes

The Nature’s Needs composting plant just outside North Plains is expected to continuing producing offensive odors for up to two more months. But research for the odor-monitoring program ordered by the Washington County Board of Commissioners began in earnest last week, hopefully laying the groundwork for determining later this year whether the plant can ever be successfully operated so close to residences and businesses.

“The goal is to have an objective way to measure the odors in place. If the commission is convinced at the end of the day that they can’t be controlled, we have the legal authority to shut it down,” Commissioner Bob Terry said on March 14 during a visit to the plant. As he spoke, hired experts set about collecting and measuring odors being released from the large mounds of organic materials being composted there.

The experts are being paid for by Recology, the large recycling company that operates the landfill. They include employees of Environmental Management Consulting, a company with years of experience dealing with odor issues. Consultants from the Minnesota-based company were in town for two days last week to gather samples and take measurements in and around the plant. They also asked North Plains residents to contact them if they detected any odors, and asked for the location and a brief description of the HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: DOUG BURKHARDT - Charles McGinley, technical director of Stillwater, Minn.-based St. Croix Sensory, Inc., uses a highly sophisticated 'Nasal Ranger's' air measuring device to check for odors coming from the Nature´s Needs composting plant.

Although Recology is paying for the experts, the monitoring program is being overseen by the county. It was a condition imposed by the Washington County Commissioners in January, when the board extended Nature’s Needs’ permit to continue operating. At that time, the commissioners made one other change they hope will significantly reduce the presence of offensive odors in the future: It banned Recology from processing commercial food waste at the plant after April 1.

The plant has been accepting large amounts of commercial food wastes from Portland.

Recology Vice President Paul Yamamoto explained that the commercial food wastes have been generating most of the offensive odors.

“If we had enough time, I’m convinced we could have brought them under control, but we ran out of time,” Yamamoto said at the plant Thursday.

According to Yamamoto, it will take approximately two months for all the commercial food wastes accepted by April 1 to be fully composted. The consultants will then return to compare the odors at the plant to the samples and measurements they collected last week. They will return several times after that to take new samples and measurements, too.

The consulting firm is operated by Tom Card, the former head of the Air Quality Technical Committee for the American Society of Civil Engineers. He has written nine books on the emissions of odors and other air pollutants from waste treatment facilities.

Last Thursday, Card supervised the collection of odors from compost piles at the plant. Air was drawn up through temporary chimneys placed on the piles and trapped in plastic bags for shipment to a laboratory in Minneapolis. Once the bags arrive there, their contents will be sampled and analyzed by a panel of trained odor experts.

At the same time, other consultants drove around the plant with “Nasal Rangers,” high tech devices for detecting offensive odors. The odd-looking instruments help determine when the odors naturally produced during the composting process become unnecessarily offensive.

“This plant is pretty small, but close to people. Normally, we’re working at a huge plant where odors are being detected 20 miles away,” Card said.

Card also trained some county and North Plains officials in how to use the Nasal Rangers.

Marilyn Schulz, one of the most outspoken critics of the situation at Nature’s Needs, said she believes the county and the company is making a “good faith effort” to help resolve the situation. She added that Card appears to be well qualified for the job, but questioned whether the offensive odors will ever fully go away.

“Odors are so subjective. The plumes travel around and are hard to monitor, even if people are reporting them at the time,” says Schulz, who co-chairs Stop the Stink, a grassroots organization that has been lobbying the county commissioners to shut down Nature’s Needs.

Terry said he hopes the changes will prove successful. He said the commission is committed to helping divert as much waste from landfills as possible, include the green materials and yard debris Recology is still allowed to accept at Nature’s Needs. Although the yard debris from Portland is mixed with residential food waste, the amount of food is not considered enough to significantly increase the odors that are naturally generated by the composting process.

At a meeting with North Plains residents last week, Terry promised Nature’s Needs will not be allowed to accept commercial food wastes from Hillsboro or Beaverton, either.

Terry noted Recology has invested around $5 million in the plant to address the odor problem, calling the company’s commitment “impressive.” But he said the commissioners will not hesitate to close the plant down if offensive odors continue undermining the quality of life in North Plains once June arrives.

Although he hopes the monitoring program will generate objective information on the source and location of the odors, Terry said the board will take resident complaints after June 1 very seriously.

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