By Sandra DeMent
For The Sentinel 

Revisiting Roosevelt: the landfill of a truly epic scale


November 8, 2017

KPUD online

GARBAGE HARBOR: The sprawling landfill complex at Roosevelt is the fourth largest in the country and includes a methane gas processing facility.

Worms produce castings, rabbits, deer and elk leave pellets, and carnivores–coyotes, lions and bears–leave their spoor, but also piles of fur, feathers and bones. Man, alas, is much, much, much messier. Trash is huge, as the president would say, and Republic Services, Inc., the second largest trash disposal company in the U.S., owns the Roosevelt Landfill in eastern Klickitat County. Republic is an award-winning, billion-dollar company with 33,000 employees nationwide. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is their single largest shareholder.

Republic provides trash services to 70 percent of the households in Washington State, including Seattle, Thurston County, Spokane, and dozens of other municipalities. All of it ends up in the Roosevelt Landfill in Klickitat County, a 2,500 acre facility perched on the cliffs above the Columbia River in the eastern Columbia Gorge. A similar facility sits across the river in Oregon. Less than half of the 2,500 acres are in use so far. Acres of wheat and hay, wild grasses and deer (real ones, not paper cutouts) cover the rest of the land. Few seagulls float overhead; a certified falconer comes several times a week to fly his birds and discourage the seagulls snatching up (and later dropping) morsels of trash.

Why Klickitat County? Weather, geology, and proximity to rail, pipeline, and barge transportation facilities are key reasons the Roosevelt facility is ideally located. The weather is dry, with less than 8 ½ inches of rain a year to complicate operations and the chemistry of decomposition. The landfill is located in a natural geologic bowl formed by millions of years of action by volcanoes, wind and water, underlain by 300 feet of solid clay and 1,500 feet of basalt lava. Geologists say it would take 15,000 years for water to percolate through those formations. And Roosevelt is unique in its proximity to river barges, railways, and the Williams natural gas pipeline, all within a mile or two of the landfill.

What goes in

The first surprise is what doesn't go into the Roosevelt operation: metal and paper reclyclables. Those are diverted to Republic facilities in Seattle and elsewhere, and bundled for sale to paper mills and metal fabricators in the U.S. and, until recently, to China.

Sixty percent of the deliveries to Roosevelt comprise municipal solid waste (MSW), most of it compacted by municipalities and delivered daily on one of two long Burlington Northern trains, each with about 300 container cars, seven days a week. Each container is loaded from the train to a truck, and each truck hauls its 50-ton load up 1800 vertical feet of road to the top of the cliff. The trucks consume 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel per day; it takes about four hours to unload each train.

Another 20 percent of the daily flow into the landfill is construction and demolition debris. The final 20 percent comprises contaminated soils and other material. Included in this category is ash from Spokane's trash incinerators; the ash is processed and buried separately from the rest of the material delivered to the landfill. About which, more later.

Roosevelt currently receives about 2.4 million tons of material each year. That works out to 1,000 pounds of trash per person, or about 20 pounds a week per person. Imagine if we each had to carry our trash around all week until the garbage truck came: newspapers, napkins, paper cups, broken glass, diapers, ballpoint pens, food waste such as leftovers, orange peels, watermelon rinds, egg shells, and butter wrappers, plastic wrap, and on and on. We should try it for a week...

What comes out

So, what does Roosevelt contribute to Klickitat County? First, paychecks! About 200 men and women work at Roosevelt, mostly as drivers or as mechanics who assemble each evening to repair the trucks and bulldozers and other specialized equipment that move tons of trash each day. These are union jobs, and pay anywhere from $13 to $26 an hour. That works out to about $9.5 million in wages each year.

The second contribution to Klickitat County are fees, based on the volume of trash. Last year, the county received $8.5 million, which it divided up among different county departments, from sheriffs to senior meals, from water treatment to roads. Without the landfill revenues, the County budget would be 12 percent smaller, and Klickitat County would have to collect $270 more in taxes per household. In other words, Klickitat County residents receive more services than similar rural counties can afford. In addition to plumping the budget, landfill revenues allow the county to set aside a percentage of landfill fees as a reserve against future needs.

There's more: recently, the landfill began using a Swiss process to extract metals from the ash received from Spokane. So far, Roosevelt has extracted over 46 tons of ferrous (iron-based) metals and 43 tons of non-ferrous metals, such as aluminum and copper, from the Spokane ash. These are sold to metal processing plants.

Finally, the decomposition of landfill trash generates methane gas, enough to power 30,000 households. Keep in mind Klickitat County only has 10,000 households, so the excess should be pure profit. But the price of energy dropped through the floor in recent years, below what was needed to pay both operating expenses and pay the debt to build the electric generation facilities at Roosevelt. Grumpy ratepayers have picked up the difference. The second article in this series will explore the Klickitat County-KPUD partnership and some new revenue generating plans that are projected to begin next year.

The Roosevelt Landfill was originally planned to receive 5 million tons of waste annually for at least 40 years. After 25 years, collecting only half the volumes of trash it has permits for, and using new technologies not available when it began, Art Mains, Republic's Environmental Manager, says the landfill still has an 85-year life span, assuming "current density and receiving rates." So, Klickitat County's golden goose should continue to generate good fortune for the county for many more years.


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