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August 3rd, 2011 JAMES PITKIN | News Stories
 

Trash Talk In Lents

A mysterious preservation group stirs up opposition to a recycling center in Southeast Portland.

news2_lents_3739ILLUSTRATION: danadartmclean.com
Something stinks in Lents.

In July, glossy brochures showed up at homes in the Southeast Portland neighborhood attacking plans to collect food waste at a local facility run by Recology Inc. 

The San Francisco-based company collects yard debris from local haulers at a recovery facility at Southeast 101st Avenue and Foster Road. Recology, which boasts a long track record in Portland, also wants to collect food there when Portland starts citywide food recycling this fall.

A few neighbors started grumbling about potential odors and noise—and then a mysterious opposition group popped up.

Called the Springwater Trail Preservation Society, the group aims to thwart Recology’s plans. “Increased truck traffic, noise, dust, pollution, and disease-carrying vermin will take over the community,” says the group’s slick website, thisdoesntsmellright.org. Then a high-priced lawyer started showing up at neighborhood meetings to oppose Recology, and well-connected lobbyists called in favors from local politicians.

No one will say who’s bankrolling all of it.

“This is more money than any citizen group I’ve ever been involved in could possibly come up with,” says John Notis of the Lents Urban Renewal Advisory Committee. “It smelled like crap.”

There are millions of dollars at stake over who controls Portlanders’ trash after they leave it on the curb. Recology now hauls the yard debris it collects at 101st and Foster to a North Plains site for composting. Gary Conkling, a veteran PR consultant paid by Recology, says the food waste would stay in Lents no more than a few hours, and occasionally overnight.

Recology needs the city to change its conditional-use permit to allow it to accept food. A few residents were alarmed by the prospect when they were first informed in the spring. They say only nearby neighbors were notified.

“I wouldn’t want this in any neighborhood in Portland,” says opponent Frank Fleck. “Recology and the city tried to sneak this through in the dead of night.” 

Fleck says he is the Springwater Trail Preservation Society’s president. Ask him who’s paying for the campaign and he ends the conversation. “I thought you were going to help us out, but you’re not,” he says—and then hangs up.

Another member claims he doesn’t know who is paying for the lawyers, lobbyists and pricey mail campaign. “My guess is that it’s business rivals of Recology,” says Gary Gossett, the group’s secretary.

The people who do know won’t come clean.

On April 27, hearings officer Gregory Frank ruled that the alleged nuisances caused by Recology’s plans wouldn’t pose a significant problem for neighbors and recommended the city approve the company’s request.

On May 9, lawyer Thomas Rask of Kell Alterman & Runstein registered the Springwater Trail Preservation Society with the state’s Corporation Division. Three days later, he appealed the hearings officer’s ruling. Neighbors at a July 26 meeting in Lents repeatedly asked Rask who was paying him. He refused to answer. Rask didn’t return WW’s phone calls.

Pac/West, a lobbying firm run by former state senator Paul Phillips, also went to work opposing Recology.

Sen. Rod Monroe (D-East Portland) wrote a letter to the City Council opposing Recology’s plan. Monroe told WW he did so at the request of Pac/West lobbyist Josh Balloch, who ran Monroe’s 2006 Senate campaign. 

“So my tendency was to be helpful when they asked for this favor,” Monroe says. 

Multnomah County Commissioner Judy Shiprack, whose district includes Lents, also wrote in opposition. Her husband, Bob Shiprack, a former labor leader and lawmaker, works with Pac/West. Judy Shiprack wouldn’t reveal whom she spoke with at Pac/West, except to say it wasn’t her husband. Bob Shiprack confirms that.

“This is really not a result of a big lobby effort,” Judy Shiprack says. “I’m involved because I have constituents who are very concerned.”

Conkling, Recology’s spokesman, suspects the hidden hand belongs to Allied Waste Transfer Services of Oregon, a competitor that recently lost a Metro contract to Recology. “The word in waste-management circles is that this is Allied trying to take a shot at Recology,” Conkling says.

Carol Dion, Allied’s general manager in Portland, didn’t return a call seeking comment. 

The City Council is set to vote on Recology’s plan later this month. Meanwhile, neighbors in Lents feel burned by the secretive opposition.

“It really irritates me,” Notis says, “when some outside moneyed interest tries to use my neighbors as pawns.”  

 
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