Council backs staff recommendation that cost outweighs benefits, but members say distant landfills for garbage are 'abhorrent'

Metro Council members like the idea of burning part of the Portland region's garbage to generate energy and reduce the tonnage trucked to a landfill nearly 150 miles away.

But without a formal vote Tuesday (Aug. 8), all of them agreed with a staff recommendation that the projected cost of such a plan outweighed any environmental, economic and social benefits.

So it appears that when Metro's current 30-year contract ends in 2019, the region will continue to ship much of its 1.3 million tons of annual garbage east of the Cascades. But the council has not yet determined the next steps, and the next contract will not last as long, maybe just 10 years.

"We as a region are using somebody else's home as a dumping ground for our garbage," Metro Councilor Craig Dirksen said. "When I heard about this, it sounded like a great way to deal with waste long term without continually hunting for holes in the ground we can fill up with garbage. I find it abhorrent to do that.

"At some point I think it would be a good idea to look at this option again.

The staff study concluded that the cost of a waste-to-energy plan would be $60 per ton, compared with $25 per ton in the landfill. Garbage would have been burned in an existing plant in Brooks, a few miles north of Salem and about 50 miles south of Portland.

For the 200,000 tons contemplated for diversion annually, burning would have cost $12 million, compared with $5 million for burial.

Councilor Carlotta Collette, echoing her colleagues, expressed disappointment.

"I am still troubled that we think it's OK to haul our garbage 150 miles up to a desert and bury it there. I still feel we have a responsibility to that part of our state and our environment," she said.

"I gather it does not make sense economically. But I would be loath to drop the subject, because we have still got to solve this problem in more effective ways than just hauling it away."

The current landfill is in Arlington in Gilliam County. Other potential sites also are east of the Cascades.

Next steps

Metro is proceeding with plans to divert food waste, which accounts for up to 18 percent of its garbage. It also seeks to step up recycling efforts to divert another 5 percent.

"There is a clear and obvious choice here — and that is to set this (waste-to-energy plan) aside and move forward with the other pieces of this solid waste road map," Councilor Kathryn Harrington said.

Even though there was no formal vote, the council decided against an alternative that would have required a more detailed study of the effects of burning on human health, the environment, climate change, and on whether poor and minority communities would bear greater burdens. Such a study, Metro staffers estimated, would take two more years and cost $500,000.

The study used two models to consider the effects of the alternatives on greenhouse gases. The results were inconclusive; according to one model, the landfill was the better option, and in the other model, burning was better.

Other areas have turned to burning because they lack space for landfills, or the high cost of power makes energy generation more attractive.

"But we do not have the conditions that suggest a waste-to-energy option," said Rob Smoot, Metro solid waste engineer.

"We do not believe there is sufficient value gained in some of the benefits — and we can get more value out of our waste — but we do not think those benefits outweigh that added cost."

Future study

Although the study concluded that public health risks were negligible, based on current regulations and existing studies, groups such as Physicians for Social Responsibility raised concerns about air pollutants from increased burning.

Metro Councilor Bob Stacey said a more detailed health impact assessment would have been needed.

"We have to make sure the energy recovery systems we use are safe," he said.

"It's not just a question of regulating emissions. We have criteria for some pollutants, for which there are standards, but we have big chasms. We have other materials that are not tracked or measured. We don't know everything that may be in the plume."

But Councilor Shirley Craddock referred to the likely reluctance of the federal government to enforce current standards, let alone come up with new ones.

"Especially with our current administration, I doubt we can get there," she said.

The area around the Brooks plant, which is operated by Covanta, is sparsely populated.

Council President Tom Hughes said that the difference between burial and burning of waste "is not a great leap forward technologically."

"The economics strongly indicate that if we are going to provide a reasonable product at a reasonable cost for our consumers, staying with the old method is probably the best way to go," he said.

Like governments in most heavily populated areas, Metro relies on reducing, reusing, recycling and composting waste to cut down on the volume of garbage that ends up in landfills.

Paul Slyman, Metro director of properties and environmental services, said there is public support for each of those steps. "But people are aghast that we (rely on our) landfill that much," he added.

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Clarifies that tonnage figures are annual; also, although Arlington is the current landfill used by Metro, alternate sites are available for a new contract after 2019.

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