During moderate flooding this year, the South Yamhill River covered much of McPhillips’s farm (foreground) and lapped against the landfill and its leachate evaporation pond (background).

In the picturesque postcards and social-media snapshots from the Willamette Valley’s wine country, the Riverbend Landfill rarely makes an appearance. Yet it rises like a fortress next to the coastal thoroughfare of Highway 18, and the mountainous, plastic-covered heap glows brightly in the morning sun. For vintner Moe Momtazi, the landfill has become an equally looming problem on his ledger sheet. 

Momtazi Vineyards sprawls across seven foothills just north of Highway 18. On a late spring day, a battalion of wild turkeys parades between the vines. Momtazi, his thinning black hair graying at the temples, pushes a handful of dried stinging nettles, cut from down the hill, into a large tub of simmering water. He’ll inject the resulting tea into the irrigation system for its medicinal and nutritional properties, part of the holistic biodynamic farming practice. 

An engineer by training, Momtazi escaped from Iran in 1982, crossing Pakistan on a motorcycle with his wife, eight months pregnant at the time. He eventually settled in the Willamette Valley, where he’s strived, with the help of his three daughters, to create the largest biodynamic vineyard in the state. Momtazi makes his own wine under the label “Maysara,” but sells half of his fruit to other winemakers to make into their respective wines. “We’ve really tried to take care of the land and grow things holistically,” he says of the biodynamic philosophy, which prizes careful cultivation of the natural properties of a given site. “We don’t import any fertilizer or minerals; we make everything here.”

When Waste Management applied to expand the landfill in 2008, the impact on Momtazi’s business was immediate. His biggest fruit customer, Scott Paul Wines, whose contract was worth over $150,000, dumped him explicitly because of Riverbend’s proximity. Other departing customers implied that it was their reason, too. 

“We were selling fruit to 32 different wineries, and right now it’s not even 10,” he says. “I have worked on this project since 1997, putting everything—money, time, and pretty much my soul into it. And then for a big company to destroy that dream for you—it was difficult.”

Even though Yamhill County voters spurned the proposed ban on Waste Management’s expansion, McPhillips and Frease’s nascent group attracted support for stopping the dump’s growth that transcended the valley’s normally rigid lines between farmers, vineyard owners, and environmentalists. They renamed their group Waste Not of Yamhill County, and easily rallied Willamette Riverkeeper, the Yamhill County Soil and Water Conservation District, and the Yamhill County Farm Bureau to their coalition.    

“It really became an issue when they wanted to expand,” says David Cruickshank, a Farm Bureau board member and former president, as well as a Republican. “The bureau was pretty unanimous against it, because eventually the county is going to be stuck with this puppy and sooner or later, we believe, something negative’s going to happen. Do you want to eat food that’s being irrigated by leachate and all kinds of heavy metals?”  

Momtazi and nearly all of the 180 members of the Willamette Valley Wineries Association also joined. As one of the industry’s most respected vintners, Jason Lett, put it at a county hearing, the growing visibility of the landfill undermines the association’s message: “We grow grapes that taste of the ground.”

For all of the near-revolutionary laws Oregon passed in the ’70s to protect farmland, the fight over Riverbend’s expansion quickly turned to political and legal trench warfare. The anti-dump alliance won an early vote from the county planning commission, but hearings before the Yamhill County Commission itself became long and arduous—one lasted 16 straight hours, until 4 a.m. In the end, Waste Management won a 2-0 vote, with the third commissioner abstaining because, she said, her husband worked for the county’s other trash company. (He was soon hired by Waste Management.)

 The neighbors appealed to the state’s powerful land use board, and won. Waste Management then filed a court appeal of its own, and lost. Game over? Waste Management pressed on, applying for an interim fix: build an earthen berm out of rock and wires around the landfill’s perimeter so that its edges can rise high as the middle—allowing an additional 2.9 million cubic yards of capacity, or some six more years’ worth of garbage—while it worked with the county on a new expansion plan.

Dump opponents like McPhillips and Frease see the county government going to great lengths to help Waste Management—and point to the $762,000 in fees the county collected from the company in 2011. “Yamhill County is getting money back per ton,” says Frease. “What’s the incentive for people who’re being funded by the dump to put it out of business?”

For Michael Brandt, director of Yamhill County’s planning department for over 20 years, the battles and legal ins and outs are a simple—if lengthy—procedural story. “What we’re talking about is a private business on private property making a private application,” he says. “When you look at it in the whole scope of things, would I have [originally built a landfill here]? No. Does it make sense now? Unfortunately, yeah it does.”