Necessity of Regionalism- A visit to the State’s Largest Landfill

From our Fall Issue, Published 9/20/16

by Joe Hyer

Back in 2004, as a brand new appointee to the Olympia City Council, I was assigned as the City’s representative to the Thurston County Solid Waste Advisory Committee.  Yes, garbage.  Little did I know that they tended to send the newest Councilmember to this one always, making it a bit of a joke.  My policy wonkiness, however, couldn’t help it, and I turned the tables on them, bringing solid waste front end center the next spring with the Zero Waste Resolution, committing to the City to a 30 year plan to eliminate waste.  Over the next few years, we introduced curbside organics collection, diverting countless tons of food waste from the landfill.  We ensured all residents, even apartment dwellers, had the opportunity to recycle.

And it paid off.  Last Fall, I was again appointed to the SWAC – this time as the County’s Citizen Rep for District one.  And I looked at the total tonnage headed for the landfill annually – it was less than in 2009.  Sure, the housing slump and great recession helped, but our efforts also impacted the waste stream.

In 2006, I had the bright idea to stop using a regional landfill, and instead keep all our trash in the County.  What better incentive to eliminate waste?  Wrong, Wrong, Wrong.  You see, all up and down Western Washington and Oregon, cities and counties, and by extension citizens, are STILL paying the costs of landfills closed decades ago.  Olympia’s old Westside dump remains an undeveloped and contaminated parcel.  The regional landfill at Hawk’s Prairie will have to be maintained and monitored for at least 30 years – and beyond the dog park, there’s not much development that can happen.  What a waste of good land.

You see, in some cases Localism just doesn’t work.  Instead, localities must work together in regional efforts to solve problems.  The LOTT sewer alliance in Thurston County is a great example – 3 cities and the county working together on sewer, to save citizens money and have a more sustainable system.


The 2016 Tour Group

I’ve wanted to visit the regional landfill for a decade.  Finally this summer I was able to arrange a tour, in partnership with the operators, Republic Services.  Local representative Steve Gilmore helped organize the trip, and we have a mayor, two councilmembers, a legislative candidate, SWAC members, and a Utility Advisory Committee member make the 4.5 hour journey by bus – following pretty closely to how our trash gets there- south to the Columbia, East to Biggs, Oregon and then up to the plateau in Klickitat County.

Our trash leaves Hawk’s Prairie in trucks, but is transferred to rail in Centralia.  Rail is far more efficient, eliminating wear and tear on highways, emitting far less greenhouse gasses, and reducing congestion on the highways.  When it arrives in the small town of Roosevelt, on the north shore of the Columbia, it is transferred onto trucks, and hauled 5 miles up to the plateau, about 1600 feet above sea level.  As part of the permit, Republic had to build its own road  to the site, which winds up the valley with tight corners- skilled drivers are essential.

The operation employs 150-160 workers, and it is a Union shop, with workings represented by the Machinists union.  They operate the ‘open face’ ten hours a day, but are actually adding a swing shift to accommodate more loads, and will be operating up to 20 hours per day.  The rail yard is one of the busiest private railyards in the US, processing more than two miles of containers per day.  MSW (Municipal Solid Waste) comes from all over Washington to the site.  In addition, Incinerator waste (ash) comes from Spokane, where much of the MSW is burned, reducing weight by 70%.

Our tour kicked off at the railyard, which was busily unloading and loading containers with million dollar forklifts onto waiting trucks.  From there we headed off to the ‘Gazebo’, a small structure perched at the South edge of the approved landfill site.  The Active Face was way off in the distance atop the next ridge, as you can see in the photos.  Here Republic staff explained how the landfill works, and WHY it needs to be in Klickitat County.

First and foremost- 7.5 inches of rain fall annually here.  West of the crest of the Cascades, its 35-50 inches.  The moisture in a landfill naturally sinks and flows out.  It’s called Leachate, and you can’t let it run into nearby streams and rivers.  With such a dry site, Roosevelt’s leachate from the entire landfill is just 5 gallons per minute, and they are actually able to pipe that back into the landfill, to help speed the breakdown of the MSW.

In addition, the plateau features a layer of Selah Clay between the surface and groundwater sources.  At 340 feet thick – it means the landfill doesn’t require an artificial liner at all.  The natural feature itself protects groundwater from the site.

The new synthetic liner material is thinner, and far more durable.

Republic, however, uses a lot of science and technology in their facilities all over the country.  They were not satisfied  with the natural liner, and have also invested in lining the landfill itself, above and beyond the permit requirements.  This liner was natural clay, about 2 feet thick.  Now, however, they have a new material, about the thickness of carpet, that is synthetic and totally seals the bottom surfaces.   You can see it in the photo with this article.  Each night, the active portion of the landfill is also covered with soil.

The Control Center at the Power Plant – highly computerized, but still human driven

Every morning, they uncover about 200 feet of a cell, called the Active Face.  They have 4 tipping units, and process up to 300 truckloads per day.  It is tipped in, compacted, then covered.  The roundtrip from the railyard to the site is about an hour for the drivers.  When we drove up to the active face, we also drove about half a mile on top of previously compacted MSW- in essence, we drove up a mountain of trash.  The mountain, however, blends in perfectly with the plateau, so once the active face is covered, you can’t distinguish it from the hills around.

Landfills also create methane as a byproduct.  This greenhouse gas is often burned off in stacks adjacent to the landfill.  Not at Roosevelt.  In partnership with the Klickitat PUD, they instead turn it into energy.  As you can see from the photo of the control room- it’s a pretty high tech facility.  When you make electricity from methane, it is generally coming from a pipeline with constant pressure.  When it comes from a landfill, that  pressure varies continuously, so to maintain power production at the generators, careful monitoring is needed.

One of 3 power generators at Roosevelt

What’s the biggest factor that impacts methane pressure?  The weather actually.  They constantly monitor the barometric pressure.  The higher the pressure, the more downward pressure on the MSW, and the more methane is produced.  When a low pressure system comes through the area, they have to back off production, sometimes down to one generator.

The power plant, and you can get a sense of its size from the photos, can produce more than 20 megawatts of power.  Enough to power more than 30,000 homes- most of Klickitat County.  Of course, as the second largest employer in the County, Republic is always working to find employees, who travel from Goldendale, the Tri-Cities, and many smaller communities to work.  Of note- citizens of Klickitat County also get free tipping fees for their trash, as a benefit of hosting the State’s largest landfill.

There’s also a brand new plant up in the corner of the site (which is nearly 2000 acres), near where they have been landfilling ash for Spokane for 30 years.  A German company in 2010 called Republic, inquiring about ash availability for a  new process they’d developed to separate metals.  It took five years of persistence, permitting, and plan, but last Spring, the project began separating metals from both old ash mined from the landfill, and new ash coming in from Spokane.  They combine it – 75% old, 25% new.  That’s optimal for the process, which is really just a series of belts and screens and magnets, similar to how recyclables are separated at a recycling plant.  It separates both ferrous and non-ferrous metals, recovering copper, steel, zinc, and more.  Every day, truckloads of reclaimed metal heads out to be re-smelted into new products.  They estimate nearly 200,000 tons of metal will be recovered over the next five years.

Our tour got to visit the ash recovery site, the methane power plant, and the active face.  We then began the long journey back to Thurston County.  Everyone in the group agreed it was a valuable experience – and a lesson in why sometimes we need to be Regionalists, and not just Localists.  Then again, if we consider ourselves residents of the Great Northwest, eastern Washington IS Local.  But for the most sustainable way  to handle out trash – Roosevelt is indeed a top notch facility, committed to going beyond the permit requirements to ensure no harm is done.

Of note- Republic Services also operates many recycling plants, and has been a leader in developing technologies to improve diversion of waste from the landfill stream.  Recycling is actually more profitable, in addition to being better for the environment.  Life cycle costs at Roosevelt, including post closure expenses of 30 years of monitoring, run $200,000 an acre.  Recycling saves us all money,  and they know it.







Standing in the Methane Power Plant, Roosevelt Regional Landfill


The tipping area – about 200 trucks per day travel 5 miles up to the plateau from the railyard at the Columbia River