North Plains plant taking Portland waste faces changes

Washington County commissioners got a whiff this week of the political stench generated by Portland’s aggressive composting policies.

Commissioners met Tuesday to discuss problems associated with Natures Needs, the large composting plant just outside of North Plains that processes most of Portland’s yard debris, commercial food waste and residential food waste. Many residents and businesses owners in the small community along the Sunset Highway say odors from the plant are hurting livability and driving away customers.

A commission-approved permit for the plant to process food waste expires at the end of the year. During a Tuesday work session, commissioners struggled to broker a deal between the Recology resource recovery company that operates the plant and its critics. The commission is tentatively scheduled to vote Nov. 20 on whether to extend the permit.

“I don’t want to be in a meeting at the end of the year with 100 unhappy people,” Commissioner Roy Rogers said.

North Plains resident Brenda Lepo said odors from the plant became worse in October 2011 when Portland began its curbside composting program that encourages residents to dispose of food waste by mixing it with their yard debris. Commercial food waste is added to the mix at Metro’s Central Transfer Station. The material is then run through a shredder and hauled to the North Plains plant for processing.

“The stink just exploded then,” Lepo said outside the meeting.

Some of the discussions among the commissioners provoked laughter from the audience, which included both Recology officials and critics. The company has proposed hiring an independent consultant to monitor odors from the plant with a commercially available device called a Nasal Ranger.

Rogers referred to the device as a Nose-o-Meter and said it sounded like something out of a comic strip.

Commissioner Bob Terry wondered whether it was possible to convince critics to accept at least some odors from the plant.

“They’re going to say zero is the right number, but we also know that there’s going to be at least some level of odors from a composting plant, just like there is from a farm,” said Terry.

In the end, the commission directed county staff to form a committee of Recology and North Plains officials to develop a solution that could include setting objective standards for measuring offensive odors.

“I think we’re leaning toward extending the permit with conditions, so lets pull together a team and see what it can come up with,” said County Chair Andy Duyck.

After the meeting, Recology Group General Manager Paul Yamamoto said he was confident the company could solve the odor problem.

Yamamoto, who had traveled from San Francisco for the meeting, said the company has spent a little less than $5 million on improvements at the plant that were only recently completed. They include paving the ground where the materials are composted and installing a draining system, both of which are intended to better handle the moisture used in the composting process.

“We can manage this and are hopeful the commission will give us an opportunity to prove it,” said Yamamoto, who was accompanied by former Washington County Chair Tom Brian and Portland lobbyist Len Bergstein.

Critics who attended the meeting were not hopeful, however.

“It’s ridiculous to say they can set objective odor standards. They are literally dooming the future of North Plains,” said Marilyn Schulz, an area farmer and co-founder of Stop the Stink, a grassroots group opposed to plant continuing to operate at its location.

Schulz said the critics were also surprised to learn from the meeting that Recology is planning to construct a building at the plant to receive more material from composting if the permit is extended.

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