Operating a Dump Keeps Town From Wasting Away


They asked for it. And now they’re getting it--1,400 tons a day of someone else’s household garbage.

The hamlet of Arlington, 137 miles up the Columbia River Gorge from Portland, and one of two towns of consequence in thinly populated Gilliam County, was the only community in Oregon foolish--or foresighted--enough to volunteer to host a new landfill for Portland’s trash.

Elsewhere in the country, people organize to keep landfills out.

Now, five months after the landfill opened, 50 big trucks a day are grinding through the center of this unadorned, one-saloon town. Each truck carries 28 tons of compressed garbage to a great, shallow hole 10 miles out in the sagebrush and cheat grass hills.


The terms of the deal have always been clear.

“Portland’s Trash Is Gilliam County’s Cash” said the buttons that county residents wore to public meetings in Portland three years ago. In just one of many hurdles, Arlington had to persuade some Portlanders to let their garbage go. And some in Portland still argue that it’s ecologically immoral to truck their trash off to another county’s dump.

But from Arlington’s perspective, each arriving load brings its share of new life to a county that was economically dying.

Newly employed truck drivers, who slow politely as they pass through town, have already begun to spread the relative wealth of as much as $35,000 a year in wages. So have the new landfill employees who unload the trucks, for about the same salary.

By next year, the high-tech garbage dump and its trucking operation will add more than 100 people to the county’s work force of just over 900, and most of these will probably live and shop in Arlington. Beyond this, more than $1,000 a day in fees from the landfill will go to Gilliam County’s general fund and to Arlington and Condon, the county’s other town, mostly for property-tax relief and public roads. In all, the new landfill will add nearly $4 million a year to a county economy estimated at $14.3 million.

Arlington’s yes-in-my-back-yard stand demonstrates the growing realization of some small-town leaders around the country that meeting the national demand for waste sites can provide long-term, if unglamorous, economic salvation.

“After all,” observed Gilliam County Commissioner Alfred (Bus) Clough, “we weren’t ever going to get a Mitsubishi auto plant in here. We had to be practical.”

Although a recent study shows that the public believes landfills are proliferating, the opposite is true. In the 1970s, there were 20,000 U.S. dumps; today, there are perhaps 6,000. Old landfills are fast reaching capacity or have been found environmentally unsafe. And new landfill sites that meet geological standards and are acceptable to the neighbors are increasingly rare.

Recently in Los Angeles, Superior Court Judge David P. Yaffe approved expansion of an existing landfill in Azusa over protests from environmentalists, who charge that the dump is all too likely to leak contaminants into the water table below, water source for a million Southern Californians. Said Yaffe: “The days when we can say we want to protect the purity of our water and ship our garbage to our neighbors are over.”

But the new, environmentally improved landfills are also increasingly complex and expensive to build. Arlington’s, for instance, has cost its operators $28 million so far.

And landfill technology will soon be even more expensive. Later this summer, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will release new, higher standards mandated under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), the federal waste-disposal law.

All this is expected to make landfills too costly for most communities to build and run themselves. The likely outcome is that big, regional landfills will be built by private companies with technological experience and access to investment capital.

Another regional dump will soon be in place in Needles, in the Southern California desert, which is in the permit-gathering stage of accommodating a low-level radioactive waste landfill for California, North Dakota, South Dakota and Arizona. Glenn Crowson, Needles city manager, doesn’t expect much impact from the five to 10 new jobs it will bring.

“It’s not going to be a high-employment facility,” said Crowson. “But it will bring a lot more traffic, fortunately, because our economy is based on visitors. Unfortunately, the traffic is going to be carrying low-level radioactive waste.”

Arlington Mayor Dennis Gronquist, who operates the local Texaco station, shares Crowson’s realism.

“If we didn’t expect big things,” said Gronquist, “we wouldn’t have been interested in taking somebody else’s garbage.”

Public works officials from other cities, increasingly desperate for new landfill sites, have dropped by Arlington to see how its dump is working so far. Brisbane, Australia, sent a scouting party, as did San Bernardino County.

“And I’m going to take people from Ventura County and from San Diego County,” reports Richard A. Daniels, who set up the Arlington project for Oregon Waste Systems Inc., a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., the largest waste-handling firm in the country.

“We’re probably conducting two tours a week, sometimes more,” Daniels said.

But Arlington’s garbage gold mine still has its critics.

“The stuff ought to be kept where it’s created,” a bitter Gloria Davis said recently. Davis and her husband, Ron, of pioneer forebears, raise beef cattle on 8,000 acres near Arlington.

Discouraging words also have been heard about the trucks that haul trash through nearby Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area. The environmentalist Friends of the Columbia Gorge, for instance, worry about accidents and the “industrial feel” of the traffic.

A chapter of the Sierra Club endorsed the landfill but still objects to hauling the trash by truck, rather than rail or barge.

But most Gilliam County residents are unruffled by the 50 extra trucks, which have little impact among the 2,600 others traversing Oregon’s major east-west roadway each day. Arlington, in truth, is something of a truck stop anyway.

Conservationists had exploded into protest when Portland television stations used unrepresentative film clips of neighborhood garbage trucks, trash flying out the back, to illustrate the trucking proposal. The complaints stopped winning converts, however, once the trucks started rolling and people could see that they looked like any other sealed 18-wheelers on the highway.

And so, Gilliam County residents have become cautious believers that the landfill can turn their fragile, fading economy around.

“It gave us a fighting chance,” said Judge Laura Pryor. Pryor, an early, effective booster of the project, lives near Condon and had no trouble noticing the ailing economy.

Every other storefront in Condon is empty, and as a lifelong resident said one evening in the town’s one remaining restaurant: “It was going to be a ghost town if they didn’t bring in something quick.”

Some in town already see optimistic signs.

A few weeks ago, the Times-Journal, the weekly newspaper, carried a front-page article about the opening of a new picture-frame shop. “Another vacant building on Condon’s Main Street is coming back to life,” the story said.

In Arlington, economic recovery may be moving faster.

The Pheasant Grill plans to add two more burger cooks this summer. Receipts at the motel and the hardware store have grown by 10%. Three new houses have been built, the first in a decade. And big-city bankers have visited town and may finance more homes. A tire distributor has inquired about a building site and there’s talk of a truck stop facility.

Property taxes have already dropped 13%.

People in Arlington say their decision to accept the landfill should be no surprise, and they credit their sensible, even sophisticated, townsfolk.

Indeed, Arlington has virtually no high-school dropouts, and 82% of graduates go on to college. And every year in June, native son Carl (Doc) Severinsen, the “Tonight Show” bandleader, comes back to appear at the Big River Band Festival.

But running deeper is an earlier, wrenching education in land use.

In the mid-1960s, the Army Corps of Engineers began work on John Day Dam, on the Columbia River, creating a reservoir that forced the government to move Arlington to higher ground.

“In those days, it was a pretty little city,” said Bus Clough, who was born and raised there. “It had lots of old locust trees.”

The corps moved houses that could meet existing building codes and opened a dump to take the rubble of the rest.

“You’d be eating your breakfast and hear a truck rumble by and say: ‘Well, there goes the Browns’ house’ up the hill to the landfill,” recalled Clough, whose home was moved in 1964.

Worse, many residents and businesses declined to relocate.

Fewer than 500 of 1,200 townspeople made the short move to higher ground. Only 17 of 35 businesses did. Abandoning the town were two auto dealers, a farm-implements supplier, two hotels with their cocktail lounges and restaurants, four of seven service stations, three of five bulk fuel sellers.

Condon experienced its own economic letdown when Condon Air Force Base, a radar site, was decommissioned in 1971.

Meanwhile, wheat farms and cattle ranches became less important employers in large part because increasingly efficient machinery eliminated jobs.

Gilliam County’s economic plight became so desperate that the county agreed to take a nuclear power plant 3 1/2 miles from Arlington--but the plant was never built. Then a fiberglass-boat manufacturer and a grain-ethanol distiller considered, and rejected, building sites near town.

Population kept dropping.

“If you’re out of work, you don’t stand around on a street corner here,” said Judge Pryor, “you have to get out.”

And as workers left the county, their children left the schools. Soon, teachers were combining different grades in the same classrooms.

In 1972, a Gilliam County landowner quietly sold a chunk of rangeland for a hazardous waste landfill. In 1982, Waste Management Inc., which also owns the new landfill, acquired the site and made improvements that allayed suspicions of most people around Arlington. Soon, that hazardous waste site, where the oily rags and booms from the Exxon Valdez spill were recently buried, had become the largest employer in the half-dozen counties around that part of eastern Oregon, with 60 full-time workers.

So the idea of a second landfill met less resistence than it might have elsewhere. Still, at the first public meeting with Waste Management, in 1986, one man got a standing ovation for announcing: “I just moved here from that cesspool you call Portland, and no way are you going to bring their garbage up here.”

But the lure remained: 35 jobs.

“And we hadn’t had 35 new jobs in Gilliam County in a hell of a long time,” remembered Bus Clough, the county commissioner, who runs a small wood-box manufacturing shop.

Eventually, most objections were coming from outside Arlington.

“We worked three years to get a company here that wanted to come here,” Judge Pryor said of the long process to get necessary permits and political support. “It was just lunacy.” State and local politicians and various special-interest groups fought over nearly every detail of the proposal.

Even such logical supporters as the state Department of Economic Development backed away from the landfill, considering garbage disposal an unfit project for diversifying the ailing county economy.

Arlington mayor Gronquist called up several of the loudest critics and threatened to send Portland back to square one in its landfill search. “If we don’t get what we want,” he said, “we don’t want the landfill.”

Judge Pryor took the same message to state politicians at the capitol in Salem.

Resistance began to die off.

In the fall of 1989, without advertisement, the first 32 truck-driving jobs drew more than 700 applicants.

Now, Commissioner Clough is beginning to talk up the idea of adding a waste-to-energy incinerator, to turn some of the trash into electricity.

And in his personal life, Clough has allowed himself a small statement of his optimism: He’s bought a new car.

He swears he needed it anyway.