Residents remain skeptical of facility's safety, despite changes

by: VERN UYETAKE - Despite changes in S&H's proposed composting facility, Stafford residents remain wary of health risks. When representatives from S&H Logging arrived at Rolling Hills Community Church May 15 for yet another public meeting regarding their proposed facility, they carried a few new details to augment the same basic message for concerned citizens.

“We have listened to you.”

“We don’t want to be the enemy.”

“We’re just developing our land.”

Will Gehr, S&H regulator and compliance director, presented the updated plan to acquire a type 1 Department of Environmental Quality permit, which restricts composting operations to yard debris only, as opposed to the type 2 permit that allows for incidental manure to be mixed in at times. He carefully explained the procedure S&H would use to quell any dust or odors coming from the facility, and colleague David Miller said he was planning to move his own family to the area as soon as possible.

What Gehr and Miller couldn’t provide, though, was exactly what residents like Tracie Tolbert continue to search for: a promise that the facility wouldn’t hurt the community’s health, businesses or property values.

“They can’t guarantee me that my property value won’t go down,” said Tolbert, who lives directly across from where the facility would be located on Borland Road. “They’re not going to guarantee me that my children aren’t going to get sick, that I’m not going to get sick, that my children aren’t going to get sick at school.”

The S&H facility, planned at 3036 SW Borland Road in the Stafford triangle, would sit near Stafford Primary and Athey Creek Middle schools. It would be used to process yard debris into compost, which could then be used in products sold at S&H’s retail site, which is located across the street. It would not compost food waste such as meat scraps or other animal products.

While the county approved the project in February, S&H still must obtain additional permits from the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality.

Gehr acknowledged during his presentation that Stafford is not an industrial area, and ideally there would be a buffer of at least 2,000 feet between the composting facility and other properties like schools and homes — as opposed to the 400 feet between the northernmost area of the facility and Athey Creek Middle School’s soccer field.

If it were up to S&H, Gehr reminded the attendees, the facility would have remained in its current Clackamas location, but Clackamas County had other ideas and declined to extend its lease.

Yet Gehr also stressed that plans had changed since the DEQ hearing on April 16. The facility would compost only yard debris now — no food waste or manure at all — and using proven methods that would keep both odors and dust at a minimum.

Residents were skeptical of the latter claim.

“It’s hard for me to stand here and believe what you’re telling us,” said one woman, who wished not to be named. “It’s not the smell, it’s what it’s carrying. Ten percent of those kids have asthma, we know that statistically. You’re going to be impacting them.

“If you were a good neighbor, you wouldn’t build it.”

Gehr countered that “what we’re doing is not so new that it’s experimental,” and stated in an interview after the meeting that he’s particularly confident about reducing the health risks associated with dust.

“It’s the dust that can affect people’s health, and that’s easier to mitigate,” Gehr said. “Our composting methods will virtually guarantee that there won’t be dust.”

But nothing will be certain until the facility is up and running, which is what leaves residents like Tolbert so apprehensive.

“The ‘do nothing’ option is preferable, because there’s no downside,” Gehr said. “And there’s a possible downside for anything proposed that might change things. We get that.”

S&H representatives also met with the West Linn-Wilsonville School District and Athey Creek Principal Joel Sebastian last Thursday. The West Linn-Wilsonville School Board has openly opposed the facility’s construction, but Gehr said the meeting was “productive.”

“The objective was really to get face-to-face and address their concerns squarely,” Gehr said. “What I can say is both sides felt that we’re establishing a better path for communication.”

Debate surrounding the facility has also spread to Salem, where Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, attached an ammendment to a bill that would prohibit the construction of any compost disposal site within 1,500 feet of a school.

The bill has moved to the House Land Use Committee, where it had a hearing on Tuesday. If it passes in the House, the bill will go back to the Senate for concurrence on the amendment.

There are no further DEQ meetings scheduled at this time. If DEQ decides to draft a permit for the facility, a public hearing would follow within 30 days. Gehr estimated the next DEQ public gathering will take place in two or three months.

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