Some Oregon Residents Are Seeing Red Over ‘Green’ Waste Treatment


People living just outside this farming community are fighting a city plan to use a grove of poplar trees to suck sewage and industrial waste from the ground like 100-foot soda straws.

The experimental new approach is generating interest around the world as a green solution to a messy problem, and Dallas is one of the first places it is being tried.

Dallas plans to spray a grove of the trees with waste water from a computer circuit-board factory. The waste contains salts, copper, heavy metals such as lead and cadmium, and possibly cyanide.

Scientists say the poplars will rid the ground of ammonia and nitrogen by safely metabolizing the compounds in their wood, and will keep the heavy metals and salts fixed in place in the soil.


But some neighbors believe the grove taking root in their back yards will be just another toxic waste dump that will poison their wells. Alongside the seedlings has appeared a protest sign with a skull and crossbones and a warning: “Don’t Let This Happen.”

“We’re absolutely outraged about the whole process,” said Penny Cox, whose family arrived via pioneer train in 1844 to farm the rich land that abuts the poplar grove. Cox heads up a dozen residents who have sued to block the plan.

Dallas, an hour southwest of Portland, has planted nearly 1,300 knee-high saplings on a three-acre test plot and could begin dumping the water as early as next spring. If the three-year experiment succeeds, a full-scale project could reach 175 acres.

“It isn’t a hazardous waste site,” said City Manager Roger Jordan. “The scale of it is small enough that there won’t be any long-term or short-term environmental impacts.”

The city of 11,000 discharges nearly 2 million gallons of treated sewage water a day directly into Rickreall Creek. But during the summer, when the river runs low, the discharge exceeds legal concentration limits.

The solution: a technology developed within the last three years that relies on fast-growing hybrid poplars to lap up nearly 3,000 gallons of waste per acre per day.

However, scientists acknowledge that if the soil acidity isn’t carefully maintained, some contaminants could leach into the ground water. And that’s what has the residents worried.

“I wouldn’t drink water from my well, eat food growing around here, and I wouldn’t let my cattle drink the water,” Cox said. “It only takes one spill to soak into the ground water, and we’d never know until it’s too late.”


“There are some studies that say in 15 years, this land won’t be worth anything,” said Al Palmer, a retiree who lives next to the site.

Palmer is already working on his contingency plan. He put his house up for sale.

“How many people have been out to look at my place? One in two months,” he said. “I hate poplars. I hate the whole concept.”