If you’ve driven past North Plains to Highway 26 you’ve likely smelled the pungent odor on the highway.

It’s the smell of Portland’s compost wafting to the roadway from a facility near the small Washington County city north of Hillsboro.

Portland’s aggressive compositing policies are raising a stink in North Plains — and critics there are afraid the problem will spread as other adopt similar policies.

The controversy revolves around Nature’s Needs, a large composting facility that accepts much of the Portland’s residential yard debris, residential food waste and commercial food waste. It is located just east of North Plans.

The Washington County Commission must decide whether the facility can continue accepting food waste before the end of the year. A work session on the issue could be scheduled as soon as Oct. 23.

Many residents and business owners charge that offensive odors frequently drift from the facility through neighborhoods and commerce areas. Ruth Peterson, who owns the Corner Deli less than a mile from the composting facility, 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 Envronmental Quality even cited the facility for numerous violations of its state compositing license in February of this year.

But Thomas says Recology, the large recycling and resource recovery company that operates the facility, has spent millions in 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 grass roots group called Stop the Stink is fighting the extension. It has collected letters in opposition from many North Plains business owners and around 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 toward adopting mandatory commercial and residential programs like those in Portland.

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

Odors difficult to eliminate

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 compositing process, however.

“The materials to be composted have odors, the compositing process produces odors, and the finished material has odors,” says Stephanie Rawson, the DEQ solid waste compliance specialist, that is assigned to Nature’s Needs. According to Rawson, her agency’s goal is to assure the odors are consistent with a properly-managed compositing operation.

In fact, other companies did compositing 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 Spierling, a Stop the Stink co-founder who owns Valley Machine, a precision manufacturing company located just down the road from Nature’s Need.

Spierling, 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 towards 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 compositing permit. It sent Recology a “warning letter with an opportunity to correct” on Feb. 1, 2012 Among other things, the letter expressed concerns over uncovered piles of material, standing water and poor drainage.

Much work has clearly been done to comply with the letter over 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 compositing process, musty odors are released with large clouds of steam — which Thomas says is natural.

Isolate the smell?

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

“I know a composting facility is going to smell. 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,” says Spierling.

Schulz agrees and says the location issue is going to become important in other parts of the region 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.

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