In the thick of its battles with angry farmers and environmentalists, Waste Management brought in its own expert: Paul Burns, a 54-year-old engineer who has worked for the company for 23 years, smoothing over political controversies surrounding landfills from Maine to Hawaii. Burns arrived on the Yamhill scene in 2009. Members of the anti-dump coalition say that he’s freely told them that Waste Management sends him to solve its problems. “I used to think of myself as an engineer,” says the ever amiable Burns, “but now I’m a teacher.”
One summer day, Burns offers a tour of the grove of poplars that partly screens Riverbend Landfill from Highway 18. Standing between rows of trees as straight as church columns, Burns explains that the thin black tubes running through the undergrowth irrigate the roots with diluted leachate—the potentially toxic stew created from rain and other liquids that seep through the landfill’s decomposing matter and pool at the bottom—the stuff opponents fear is leaking. But in the grove, which won an award from the American Academy of Environmental Engineers, the tree roots absorb the leachate before it enters the water table. The company then periodically harvests the trees to sell for pulp.
Burns points to this green-design element as evidence of fundamental goodwill.
“I’ve worked on controversial sites before, and the key is communication,” Burns says. “We want to hear what people are saying, change what we can change, and be the best neighbors we can be.”
Beginning earlier this year, Waste Management has held monthly community meetings to give presentations and discuss topics one by one with its hired experts, from water quality and the well-monitoring system to whether the landfill is in the South Yamhill River floodway. And the company, Burns points out, is making concessions, starting with the announcement at a May community meeting that Riverbend would no longer seek an additional 10 feet of height. To McPhillips’s “Thank you,” Burns gave his customary response: “We listen.”
“Paul’s done an amazing job of communication,” McPhillips acknowledges. “The way he’s treated the community has been far more respectful. We really appreciate that they’ve come to the table to inform us what they’re doing, but it’s only furthered our resolve that what they’re doing is not good for the community.”
Each meeting between Waste Management and its opponents is a tensely cordial affair: shared pizza, the occasional release valve of humor. “There is a long way to go with several important Riverbend issues,” says hydrogeologist McJunkin, who tends to be the most aggressive in his technical challenges of Waste Management’s experts. “Waste Management will send as many Ph.D.’s as needed to attack the issues being raised.”
For his part, Burns sees the future of trash in more technology and recycling. In North Portland, he notes, Waste Management is building the first commercial-scale plant devoted to a new process: turning hard-to-recycle and contaminated plastics into synthetic fuels. He points to a site he worked on in Rochester, New Hampshire, as his example for Riverbend: substantial community involvement that produced a landfill replete with parks, wetlands, and even a golf course, plus a gas-to-energy plant.
“Long-term expansion is still where we plan to go,” Burns says flatly of the mountain of trash in Oregon’s farm and wine country. “But it won’t be the expansion everyone saw before, where the idea was to fit as much as we can.”
Meanwhile, the dump’s opponents have convinced state regulators to take a closer look at floodway and seismic issues. DEQ permit engineer Bob Schwarz has asked Waste Management for further data to prove that the landfill is not in the floodway and is not on soil that might liquefy in an earthquake. “If those things can be addressed satisfactorily,” he says, “I don’t believe the regulations regarding a landfill would allow us to prevent it from expanding.”
McPhillips has taken down his “farting landfill” sign. He’s moved into the 1860s caretaker’s house right next to the dump, renting out the family farmhouse to pay legal bills arising from his fight. And he vows to keep fighting.
“My grandfather worked harder than anyone in this state to fight for clean rivers and air,” McPhillips says. “On his deathbed, he told me, ‘Nothing great is ever achieved without Uncle Controversy in control.’ I’m not going to let this be the final chapter in the McPhillips story.”