Dressed in a signature black leather trench coat with a prodigious and graying beard that spills over his collar and down the front of his shirt, Timm Schimke cuts a Grizzly Adams meets Jerry Garcia visage. If he doesn't look like your average bureaucrat, that's because he's not.
On a recent blustery March afternoon, Schimke gave me a quick tour of his office the 80-plus-acre Knott landfill. It's a place that most residents would prefer to know as little about as possible. Knott landfill has been taking local residents' refuse for more than 30 years, and Schimke has been here for most of them starting as a heavy equipment operator and working his way up to solid waste director.
Recently though, Schimke and other county officials are seeing more than just piles of garbage when they survey the landfill. They see energy and, more importantly, money for the cash-strapped county.
What they're seeing and seriously considering is a potential waste-to-energy project that would tap the natural decomposition process to create natural gas. If all goes according to plan, that gas could potentially be sold at a premium price in California where state renewable energy laws have created a vast market for so-called green energy. It's not an entirely new idea. Dozens of landfills around the country have opted to tap the methane-based gas production to turn turbines and generate electricity.
"I see it as an asset. We're flaring it now and it's just dollars lost," said Schimke about the practice of burning off a portion of the gas in a steel pipe that juts out of the ground near the entrance to the garbage holding cells.
"I'm a bit anxious to see some benefit from that gas."
County officials aren't the only ones seeing a potential boom in landfill gas development. Schimke said he gets calls on a near weekly basis from companies that are interested in partnering with the county on waste-to-energy projects, as they have been dubbed.
In fact, a California-based firm is pushing the current proposal. Waste to Energy Group has told the county that it possesses a proprietary technology that would speed up landfill decomposition and quadruple natural gas production at Knott Landfill. Cylvia Hayes of 3E Strategies introduced the company, which has yet to bring a project online, to Deschutes County officials. Hayes, a longtime Central Oregon resident, is the girlfriend of Governor John Kitzhaber. Neither Waste to Energy representatives or Hayes returned a call seeking comment for this story.
Unlike some other waste-to-energy projects, such as trash incinerators, Waste to Energy isn't interested in generating electricity on-site at Knott.
There's just one catch, the new technology would require about 5,000 gallons per day of water that would be injected into the landfill to supercharge the organic decomposition process, something that neighbor David Poboisk, has dubbed "garbage fracking."
Pobiosk lives about a mile east of the landfill in a rural development where he and his neighbors are on a private well system, one that he would like to see remain free of contamination. Like some of his other neighbors, Poboisk has tangled with the county before over landfill-related issues, most notably a bitter fight over a tire processing plant that the county proposed to build nearly a decade ago at Knott.
Pobiosk, who organized a recent meeting featuring a prominent opponent of landfill waste-to-energy projects, sees similarities between the current proposal and past efforts to generate cash from trash.
"We're definitely trying to get people to consider that there might be some negatives," said Pobiosk.
A securities trader who works from home, Poboisk is a dogged researcher who has already compiled dozens of documents related to the proposed project. Among Poboisk's concerns are the potential threats to his groundwater and the possibility of an accident involving explosive gasses at the landfill, which is situated nearly directly across a two-lane street from High Desert Middle School.
County Commissioner Alan Unger attended Poboisk's February forum and said he is sensitive to the concerns of neighbors, which he believes the county will address with additional information. Like Schimke, Unger doesn't see a big risk in exploring the energy potential at Knott, or using new technology to bolster gas production.
He's also interested in the project's fiscal implications for the county, which recently diverted funds away from road maintenance to bolster the landfill coffers after a drop-off in collection eroded operating dollars. Those road funds are linked to a $5 per ton fee that commissioners instituted a few years back at Knott, specifically to fund road maintenance. Unger said commissioners decided to keep half of that money at Knott this year to balance the landfill budget.
While the county has yet to work out the terms of a deal with Waste to Energy group, it's been estimated that a partnership could generate about $250,000 annually for the county, with no public investment required. That's about enough to offset the hit to the road budget, Unger said. It could also stave off more drastic staff and operations cutbacks at the landfill. The alternative: higher fees for haulers and, by extension, customers - something that Schimke and his commissioners would like to avoid.
"In today's world, we know that we will be having less money to really run government with, and we need to rethink all the things we spend our money on," said Unger.
The flip side is that officials like Unger are also trying to find more ways to generate revenue without raising fees and taxes. In that sense, waste-to-energy projects should be a win-win for private industry and public bodies.
That's an oversimplification of the issue, according to Mike Ewal, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Energy Justice Network.
Ewal, who helped to found the organization several years ago, is an outspoken critic of waste-to-energy projects, which he said are typically little more than greenwashing for large solid waste companies. Ewal, who was on the West Coast recently, came to Bend at Poboisk's invitation to share some of his concerns. Speaking from Pennsylvania by phone last week, Ewal said waste-to-energy projects like the one proposed here are problematic because they discourage one of the most progressive trends in waste management - the separation of organic material out of the garbage stream. By promoting methane production, Ewal said waste managers are essentially discouraging waste sorting and composting, which would minimize gas production.
"Even though they have a fancier sounding name, the very central part of what they are proposing is going the wrong direction," Ewal said.
"The crux of the problem is that they want to maximize gas production, which is exactly the opposite of what a well managed landfill should be doing," he said.
Ewal said he would also be concerned about adding moisture to the landfill, something that most solid waste managers take great pains to minimize. That's because that moisture ultimately seeps to the bottom of the landfill where it is then pumped off the liner and recycled through the waste. In the process, the water becomes laced with chemicals and other compounds, forming a potentially toxic soup with the somewhat stomach-turning moniker, "leachate." Because landfill liners can and eventually do leak, said Ewal, it's important to minimize how much moisture infiltrates the landfill. The waste-to-energy proposal turns that concept on its head.
"If they're going to add that much moisture, they're going to increase the availability of moisture to create leachate and leak into the ground water," Ewal said.
While the possibility of leaking liners and gas escapes are always real, Schimke said it's important to keep things in perspective. Waste to Energy Group is proposing to conduct their gas extraction on a relatively small area of the landfill, roughly five acres. That site would move around as production ebbs and flows. At present, Schimke said the landfill is still well below its federal standard for air quality omissions and doesn't expect the project to affect the overall output from the landfill.
As far as water quality, Schimke said the project, according to the county's prospective business partner, would not increase the overall moisture level in landfill.
But if Schimke, who is scheduled to update county commissioners next week on the outreach process, wants to convince neighbors to support, or at least not oppose, the project he may have to make a concerted effort.
"I hope they hold some more meetings. I didn't go to the meeting with the company that is proposing this, so I haven't heard their argument for it," said Gretchen Grivel, a neighbor who owns a nearby horse boarding business.
Grivel, who was an active opponent of the tire-processing proposal in 2004, said she has yet to get involved with the current controversy. However, she said she's skeptical about whether an out-of-state energy developer has the county's best interest in mind when it rolls out a project such as this.
"They come to our landfill and propose whatever they want, and the landfill is all about it. It's not that much money for an unknown risk, and there's no assignment of future responsibility," Grivel said.
According to Schimke, residents will have a chance to air some of those questions and concerns within the next month when a final public hearing will likely be scheduled. That meeting should include a representative from Waste to Energy Group. There will likely be additional opportunities for the public to weigh in with county commissioner who will need to sign off on the project as well as with the state Department of Environmental Quality, which has to OK the landfill's revised environmental permit.