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Competing For Your Trash: The Huge, Hidden Landfills Of The Columbia River Gorge

Competition for your garbage is increasingly fierce. It's become an important, if mostly hidden, industry in the Columbia River Gorge.

When you throw away a candy wrapper, it could make a really long trip to its final resting place—all the way to the east end of the Gorge. Four big landfills there take household trash from a remarkably wide area that reaches as far away as Sitka, Alaska.

Every weekday, 50 to 60 semi-trucks pull off the interstate at Arlington, Oregon, and head up to the Columbia Ridge Landfill with Portland's garbage. Seattle and Kitsap County's also goes there, but by train.

Directly across the Columbia River, two or three trains per day—typically each more than a mile long—pull into tiny Roosevelt, Washington, loaded with garbage. A fleet of trucks await to shuttle the garbage a short ways uphill to the huge, but out-of-sight Roosevelt Regional Landfill.

That landfill takes much of Western Washington's trash, along with trash from smaller communities in British Columbia including Whistler, southeast Alaska and incinerator ash from Spokane.

Why your trash travels so far

Republic Services operates the Roosevelt landfill. Its general manager for the state of Washington, Don Tibbets, recalled his reaction when he first laid eyes on the place.

"Wow, it's big. Yeah. This is one of the largest landfills not only in the region, but in the country,” he said.

Up the river a little ways, the Finley Buttes Regional Landfill has the disposal contracts for Pendleton, Vancouver/Clark County, Washington, and the Tri-Cities. Clark County's waste arrives by barge.

The Wasco County Landfill near The Dalles now has aspirations to take trash from long distances away too. A company called Waste Connections owns that one along with the Finley Buttes landfill.

Credit Google Maps
Google Maps
Landfills have become an important industry in the Columbia River Gorge.

Tibbets said there's a good reason for why so much of the urban Northwest's trash travels hundreds of miles to be buried around here.

"Landfills are very costly to run on the western side of the Cascades simply because of the precipitation,” he said. “Portland and Seattle, they get roughly 35 inches of rain per year. We're under nine inches here."

Tibbets said his landfill is "highly engineered" with liners and collection systems to capture and treat whatever harmful liquid does percolate through.

"Leachate, which is the moisture that touches the trash, is extremely costly to dispose of,” he said.

Garbage is gold

The regional landfill operators are increasingly competitive and they’re willing to cut prices to get your trash. Tibbets' biggest customer is Snohomish County, Washington, just north of Seattle. They're in the process of finalizing a new 10-year disposal contract. The price per ton in the new contract went down by about 5 percent.

Seattle renegotiated its long-term landfill contract with Waste Management Inc. earlier this year and reaped savings. Portland's Metro government hopes to get a good deal when it rebids next year.

"There are more regional landfills in play now, so because of that it's a more aggressive market,” Tibbets said. “As well—back to economies of scale—the more you move, the cheaper it becomes."

So does that mean customers will see lower garbage rates? Not right away according to Snohomish County Public Works Director Steve Thomsen.

"It'll help us stabilize rates going into the future,” he said. “With inflation, fuel and labor costs, we would rather be a little more conservative and see how it goes over the next couple budget cycles." ??

Garbage is gold to the taxpayers and local governments in the rural counties hosting the regional landfills. Rancher and Klickitat County Commissioner Jim Sizemore goes so far as to call the Roosevelt landfill near him "a godsend." It created a couple hundred jobs. Also, tipping fees for every ton of trash that comes into the county covers nearly one-fifth of the county budget.

"It's just been an amazing benefit,” Sizemore said. “Most of our neighboring counties struggle. We don't have to struggle quite as hard."

In Gilliam County, Oregon, home to the Columbia Ridge landfill, local homeowners enjoy reduced property taxes. The Finley Buttes Regional Landfill pays fees to maintain Morrow County roads. ?

At the three largest regional landfills, small power plants fueled by methane from decomposing garbage make electricity. So the hamburger wrapper you threw away a while ago contributes a tiny bit to lighting tens of thousands of homes at the east end of the Columbia River Gorge.

Tibbets said the Roosevelt regional landfill has 100 years of capacity remaining at current fill rates. The landfill is permitted to fill a wide natural bowl that faces a valley about 1,000 feet in elevation above the Columbia River. The closest neighbors live about four or five miles away. 

?According to a technical study prepared for Metro this spring, Columbia Ridge Landfill has 121 years of capacity remaining. The smaller Finley Buttes landfill, operated by Waste Connections, has more than 200 years of remaining capacity at its current rate of business.

Credit Tom Banse / Northwest News Network
Northwest News Network
Don Tibbets previously was general manager of the Roosevelt Regional Landfill. More recently, he was promoted to oversee all post-collection operations in Washington state for Republic Services.

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.