Sometimes, being a journalist requires going on field trips, and when I was invited to tour the Short Mountain Landfill, I let my curiosity outweigh my distaste of pungent smells … and I couldn’t resist recruiting some interns to come along for the ride.
In case you’re unfamiliar with our landfill, here are some quick facts about Short Mountain that may pique your interest.
• In operation since 1976, it takes all non-hazardous waste in Lane County, which is about 1,000 tons per day
• The landfill covers 103 acres. It will cover 220 acres at full build out.
• It’s run by around 11 employees, and inmate crews come about twice a week to pick up litter as community service.
• Short Mountain Landfill is the only permitted municipal landfill in Lane County. It’s funded strictly through charging each of the trucks that dumps at Short Mountain; taxpayers’ money doesn’t fund Short Mountain
• It got its name for being next to a mountain called Short Mountain – not because a landfill is a short mountain.
It took a couple months of planning, but three of The Chronicle’s interns – Zoe Hicks, reporting intern; Garrett Hyink, sales/marketing intern; and Nakul Patel, sales/marketing intern – and I finally made it happen, and were met by Devon Ashbridge, Lane County public information officer and Short Mountain Landfill supervisor Keith Hendrix.
As the six of us stood near the entrance at 84777 Dillard Access Road, reading an educational display, Hyink asked the first question: “Is it expected that it’ll decompose at some point?”
“It doesn’t really break down,” Hendrix answered. “It’s an oxygen-free environment by design. Without that oxygen in there, it’s only going to do so much. It does settle over time, but as far as completely breaking down to nothing, that’s not going to happen. That hill’s going to be there forever. The reason we don’t want oxygen in there is because there’s a lot of heat, and if you introduce oxygen into that waste mass, you can create a subsurface fire within the landfill, which is very, very, very problematic.”
That’s when I suddenly realized just how much science and math is used when managing landfills.
As a journalist, you learn on the job every day. It’s in learning that you’re able to relay that information to other people. And Hendrix said it best: “The more you learn about Short Mountain Landfill, the more interesting it becomes.”
“You take your can out to the curb; you go to work, come home, and it’s empty. It just magically went somewhere, and you go about your business,” Hendrix said. “Well, there’s a lot of magic that happens here with it, and it’s a highly-engineered, highly-regulated industry, and we have a phenomenal team that does an amazing job.”
Hicks, Hyink, Patel, and I piled into Hendrix’s truck – with Ashbridge following in her car – and drove to the top of the site, learning along the way.
Hendrix said each landfill has different challenges, and the landfill’s greatest challenge lies within leachate management.
Leachate is the liquid that percolates down through the waste mass, and management involves monitoring groundwater contamination and landfill gas migration as well as trucking away 20 million gallons of leachate annually.
“Everything we build 12 months out of the year is to promote stormwater runoff and not contribute to that leachate generation. If we can keep the water from contacting waste and hitting the collection system and just shut it off as clean stormwater, then that’s less (leachate) we have to haul,” Hendrix said.
Hendrix stopped to point out where the leachate is collected.
“Down there, you can see that black ring. That’s actually a 96-inch diameter tube that goes 34 feet down in the ground right there, and that’s where all the leachate drains to and is collected,” Hendrix said. “There are two pumps that are operated by floats, and then there’s all the controls for that under that little shelter.”
As the tour was nearing its end, Hendrix said, “I’ve been doing this for 32 years now, and it’s like we have to prove ourselves. I’ve got to prove myself in terms of representing this site because ‘we just kinda push garbage around’ – that’s the perception – so it’s important to me that it’s respected.”
When Ashbridge told me I should go tour the landfill, I’ll admit my initial thought was: “Why would I do that?” But as I was leaving SML, I realized my perception of landfills wasn’t remotely accurate.
See, I was imagining a smelly dump. I was imagining swirly, green, cartoon stink lines floating above a massive pile of trash. But what I saw was a well-organized and thoroughly managed system to dispose of waste, and I was impressed.
Clever as she is, that’s why Ashbridge wanted me to tour the landfill.
“Before I began working for Lane County, like many residents, I had no idea what happened at the landfill. All I knew was that I put my garbage at the curb each week, and it went somewhere else,” Ashbridge said. “Once I had the chance to tour the landfill and meet Keith and his team, I was so incredibly impressed by what a coordinated and technical operation they run. And, the work they do has a direct effect on the quality of life in our community. They know that. They’re proud of it. And I want everyone else to be proud of it too.”
I could have used my allocated word count to explain the protocol for a power failure or explain the material used for the liner system – which, objectively, are very fun facts – but instead, I’m opting to reflect on my own misjudgment.
“It’s garbage, and without a look behind the curtain, it’s understandable that some people would have no idea about current practices and advancements in the industry. It’s natural for people to imagine that a landfill could be a pretty unpleasant place, if they’ve never had the opportunity to visit a modern facility,” Hendrix said. “That’s why we enjoy giving tours and presentations. We’re proud of the work we do.”
Amanda Lurey is a reporter for The Chronicle. You can reach her at [email protected].