Snuffing out wildfires of rumors under dangerous conditions

This is a story of an incendiary sentence that alert village voices dampened before it ignited a wildfire of raging rumors.

Three issues created combustible conditions for rumors. Distrust is one issue. Our citizens distrust those west of the Cascades. Some citizens distrust developers, especially after 2003 when Twin W co-developers were fined $23,156 as mitigation for removing 115,000 square feet of protected vegetation along Columbia River’s shoreline.

Then commissioners changed a rule that would have assisted Twin W’s shoreline development, but were forced to reverse it. On Oct. 28, 2003, The Wenatchee World’s James Pitkin reported “Douglas County commissioners voted 2-1 … to reverse a change that weakened waterfront protection rules after a challenge from a citizen watchdog group.” Commissioners had changed the rule in a public meeting without notice or a public hearing. Distrust from public misbehavior smolders in citizen activist groups.

Another issue is the recent expansion of the Greater Wenatchee Regional Landfill operated by Waste Management under an agreement that permits imported waste. Even after the permitting process, residents are wary of waste imported onto a landfill overlooking our Columbia River.

The final issue is Georgia Pacific-West’s contaminated paper mill. The Port of Bellingham bought it for $10 and accepted responsibility for an estimated $17 million environmental clean-up. By spring of 2012 the port and Washington’s Department of Ecology plan to remove about 450 tons of poisonous mercury soil, about 8,000 tons of petroleum saturated soil and unspecified tons of mercury-contaminated building materials.

Into these combustible conditions a Westside National Public Radio reporter ended a July 29 broadcast about the clean-up by saying, “The port wants to haul it east of the Cascades, to one of two hazardous waste landfills near the Columbia River.” The sentence ignited fears of a corporate giant in cahoots with county officials importing hazardous waste dumped by Westsiders onto Douglas County’s landfill.

Our GWRLF is not permitted to accept hazardous waste. There is one commercial hazardous waste landfill at Arlington, Ore., and a landfill at Roosevelt, near Goldendale, that can handle waste more contaminated than GWRLF permitted waste.

The GWRLF local agreement permits ‘acceptable waste’ defined by RCW 70.95.030 as “all putrescible and nonputrescible solid and semisolid wastes including, garbage, rubbish, ashes, industrial waste, swill, sewage, sludge, demolition and construction wastes.” The agreement excludes ‘hazardous waste.’ (RCW 70.95).

A request to import GP-West waste is unlikely. Brian Gouran, the port’s environmental project manager, said the project has not been released for bid, and the mercury project wouldn’t be bid until this spring. Contractors’ bids must provide details on agreements to deliver and deposit waste on landfills.

Ken Gimble, municipal relations manager for Waste Management, said none of his people are aware of the project. Ron Draggoo, director of the county solid waste program, was on vacation, but commissioner Dale Snyder, elected in 2008 and currently board chair and chair of the Solid Waste Advisory Committee, returned my call. He said, “I’ve heard nothing about the project, and I’m sure I would have if we were working on it.”

However, there are embers in the details that could ignite rumors. The GWRLF is a federal subtitle-D landfill with lined barriers and monitoring wells, meaning it could receive non-hazardous waste containing mercury. The citizen’s group learned waste removal plans segregate sites into grids that are profiled to see which are non-hazardous.

Brian Sato, DOE’s project director for this site, told me, “It’s reasonable to expect that some soils excavated during the removal action would not designate as hazardous waste, meaning mercury presence is less than .2 milliliters per liter and 1,000 milligrams per kilogram.”
Gimble said Waste Management adds another requirement for mercury. “If any ‘free elemental mercury’ is detected, (meaning it’s visible), the waste would not be acceptable,” he said.

County commissioners can refuse non-hazardous waste. “The local agreement may exclude them,” Sato said.

The Douglas County Solid Waste Importation Ordinance describes the approval process. County departments and agencies such as the Chelan-Douglas Health District and WSU Cooperative Extension must agree waste profiles indicate there are no threats to environmental and public health issues. The ordinance states, “If it is determined by the commissioners that sufficient information has been provided, and that all known potential adverse impacts have been identified, assessed and mitigated the request may be approved.”

“To be honest, over here I haven’t heard much about delivery to your landfill,” Gouran said. “It’s not on a railcar line, so it’s usually cheaper to ship by rail to Roosevelt or Arlington.”

In summary, hazardous waste is not acceptable, non-hazardous imported waste has to be approved by public process, and costs to truck waste from the Westside are usually prohibitive.

Active village voices help us prevent wildfires from rumors.

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