Should the proposed berm at Riverbend be approved?


The discussion about building a berm at Riverbend presents an important question about whether a landfill still makes sense for the future of our community. The answer depends on our vision for the future.

If our vision includes prosperity driven by thoughtful and sustainable growth, the answer is yes.

If our vision includes reliable and cost-effective community infrastructure that will attract new businesses and support growth for existing businesses, the answer also is yes.

For most of the 5-plus years I’ve lived and worked in McMinnville, Waste Management’s effort to continue its operation of the Riverbend Landfill has been a hot, often contentious topic of community discussion. Well-meaning people have shared arguments both for and against the landfill. The resulting challenge is to sort fact from fiction, hearsay from hard evidence, and strong feelings from economics.

The opponents are no doubt sincere but seem driven by emotion. They simply don’t like the landfill and seek complete closure as the only acceptable outcome. Others who express more scientifically based concerns raise legitimate questions that would justify apprehension if not for the fact that waste disposal is one of the country’s most highly regulated and closely monitored industries — and Riverbend has maintained an outstanding record of stewardship in all aspects of its landfill operation.

Some would argue that there are viable “green” alternatives to the current landfill, but research clearly shows that most of these technologies are still in development and are cost-prohibitive in rural, low-volume areas. Plus, those alternatives also meet with strong resistance from environmental groups. When the dust settles, what we’re ultimately left with, in lieu of an operating landfill, are more expensive hauling fees to transport local garbage to Coffin Butte near Corvallis or to the Columbia Gorge community of Arlington, nearly 200 miles away.

So let’s put emotion and more expensive, unrealistic alternatives aside to focus on what Riverbend brings to the table, starting with full compliance with rigorous federal and state requirements to protect the environment. To this we can add Waste Management’s innovative partnership with McMinnville Water & Light, which generates renewable energy for 2,500 McMinnville homes.

Additionally, there is $12 million in capital investment for 2013-14; a steady, reliable revenue stream in excess of $1 million annually to Yamhill County; 20 local family-wage jobs; active community involvement; and a vital partnership with businesses to provide affordable waste disposal along with low transportation costs.

All of these factors are important, but none is more critical than the last.

Manufacturing and industry are critical to McMinnville’s future. Much of the community’s success in attracting and retaining valuable companies has resulted from a business-friendly environment in which affordable waste disposal is a major economic advantage. While the bypass provides the promise of future improvement, cost-effective renewable power and ready sources of water, together with reasonable disposal rates, make the city attractive.

Without a competitive infrastructure, the prosperity that accompanies thoughtful and sustainable growth becomes a tenuous prospect. Consequently, the dialogue about Riverbend’s future touches all of us who are working to shape the future of this community.

Riverbend will close in the next few years unless the broader community steps into this conversation. While we all might wish there were no need for waste disposal, Riverbend’s closure won’t save the world one piece of waste. It will simply move it to another community that will benefit from the revenue streams, family-wage jobs, record of good safety and the contributions of a responsible civic partner.

Guest writer Phil Hutchinson has been president and CEO of McMinnville Area Chamber of Commerce since 2008. Before that, he directed the Newport chamber for 15 years. He enjoys time with his three children and three young grandchildren.


When I was a kid and my family drove near Albany, everyone would wail “Eeeew” as we passed the wood products plant in Millersburg, which was synonymous with foul odors for years afterward. If we fail to close Riverbend Landfill in 2014 as scheduled, the stench of garbage will become McMinnville’s lasting impression.

The proposal to construct a berm (wall) up to 40 feet in height along the north side of this unstable mountain of garbage is fraught with uncertainty. Riverbend’s proposed 60-acre expansion of the dump is in doubt due to legal and environmental problems, so the berm would be a stopgap measure to keep the garbage coming. The berm will add the pressure of another million tons of garbage (two-thirds of it imported from outside Yamhill County) to the roughly 14 million tons of garbage presently permitted on the riverbank. DEQ reports the site already is leaking, and adding more garbage makes the problem worse.

We know the dump harbors numerous poisons that must be kept from leaking into the South Yamhill River and drinking water aquifer for hundreds of years. Considering that it sits on the flood plain of a river that can change course over a season or over centuries, and is located in a zone where massive earthquakes hit about every 400 years, any expansion magnifies an existing problem.

The original engineer for the landfill, Leonard Rydell, resigned because of concerns about how the site was being constructed. Design calculations by Riverbend Landfill’s consultants submitted to and approved by DEQ show that the wall design fails for slope stability.

“Slope stability” means “landslides,” and an 8.5 magnitude Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake will cause landslides of garbage, potentially polluting the river. Oregon engineering standards typically require designs to withstand 9.0 magnitude quakes, meaning even greater risk than predicted by the lower, 8.5 standard used for the berm design.

While hosting the region’s dump might save a dollar or so monthly on all our garbage bills, allowing the berm will adversely affect our livability. Riverbend Landfill’s DEQ permit allows an annual release of hundreds of tons of dangerous compounds into the air, including hydrogen sulfide, the poisonous, rotten-egg smell nobody likes. Riverbend burns about 50 percent of the landfill gases to generate power it markets as “green,” but it also releases 212 tons of carbon dioxide equivalents and will continue to emit such greenhouse gases decades after the site is closed.

The berm also could affect tourism. More than 30 garbage-hauling semis make daily round trips using Northeast Lafayette Avenue, bisecting the proposed Gateway District. McMinnville is preparing to invest millions to promote the district as a pedestrian-friendly development. Carlton already is dealing with infrastructure damage caused by these trucks and their impact on tourists. Who is going to want to stroll around smelling these trucks drive past?

Another landfill, Coffin Butte — just 35 miles down the road — does not have any earthquake, flooding, leaking or livability problems and is available to take our trash at competitive prices. Recent disclosures that Riverbend and property adjacent to the old Whiteson Landfill contain native archaeological sites also should raise ethical concerns about inappropriate use of this land.

Erecting a berm to pile more garbage on a site that never should have been used for a landfill (DEQ acknowledges that) is asking for trouble. All that’s left in doubt is whether the declining quality of life creeps in slowly, or comes quickly in some geological disaster.

And when you say “McMinnville,” people are going think “garbage,” instead of the many other fine attractions the area has to offer.
Guest writer Mark Davis retired from the Housing Authority of Yamhill County in 2011 and previously worked as a Certified Public Accountant and as manager of a McMinnville natural foods co-op. He was among the first recyclers in McMinnville.


David Bates

Infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible, and is therefore not "sustainable." I realize that such a statement is fraught with historical baggage and even political implications. It is not, however, an expression of opinion. It’s math. It’s physics. It’s geography. It’s chemistry. It seems to me that the question of what to do with all the waste industrial civilization produces needs to take that into account. More landfills with higher berms ignores the question altogether.

Don Dix


If as you state, "More landfills with higher berms ignores the question altogether", which waste solution does not ignore the question?

David Bates

My point is that a "solution" to the problem of waste involves more than simply finding a spot on a map where the fewest number of people object to having a mountain of trash blot out the horizon. The premise of the debate over waste management is, as Mr. Hutchinson claims, that we can have "prosperity driven by ... sustainable growth." I do not agree with that statement. A "prosperity" that is in harmony with the planet's ecological health, which is the only kind of prosperity we should be strive for, cannot be "driven" by endlessly topping the previous year's GDP.

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