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A farewell (for now) to Wallingford’s garbage

Torn couches, busted TV stands, coolers and black plastic bags of trash were among the items in the disposal pit at Seattle Public Utilities’ north solid waste transfer station in Wallingford last Friday. As a self-haul customer hucked a few more bags out of their car and onto the pile, a roaring bulldozer, covered in grayish trash-dust residue, pushed the waste toward a compactor, where it would be crushed, loaded onto a tractor trailer, hauled to a rail yard and shipped by train to a landfill in eastern Oregon.

Wallingford's dim-lit and dingy waypoint for Seattle waste was built in 1967. On Monday at 5:30 p.m., it will shut down. A safer, less odorous and more energy efficient (the roof will be covered in solar panels) station will take its place in 2016. The new facility will also be bigger — 57,475 instead of 29,127 square feet. And the property will expand eastward to include a block of Carr Place North, between 34th and 35th Street and the site of the Oroweat bakery. The street will become part of the facility’s entrance and scale yard and SPU will build a 10,500 square foot recycling center where the bakery stands. Part of the bakery property bordering Woodlawn Ave. will become a park.

The new facility comes with a hefty price tag. The total project cost, including environmental remediation and land acquisition, is estimated at  $92.4 million, according to SPU spokesman Andy Ryan. The city hired the engineering and construction firm CDM Smith in 2012 to design the facility. The cost of the firm’s initial $8,624,217 design contract was reduced to $7,982,060 late last year. SPU will sell bonds in 2014, 2015 and 2017 to pay for the project. To cover the debt service on the bonds SPU will use a combination of “moderate rate increases and operational efficiencies,” according to the utilities' 2014-2019 proposed solid waste capital improvement plan.

The new facility will be similar to SPU’s 100,000-foot South Park transfer station, which opened in April 2013, after 13-years of planning and construction and $76 million in costs. Financially the projects are a big deal for SPU. “Reconstruction of both transfer stations along with site remediation efforts puts considerable short-term financial strain on the Solid Waste Fund,” says the capital improvement plan.

The contrast between the south and north stations is stark. The South Park facility, which is the size of almost two football fields, is separated into two halves. On one side of the building, the city’s contracted waste haulers — Waste Management, Inc. and CleanScapes, Inc. — dump loads of trash. On the other side, self-haul customers can unload old furniture or yard waste from their vehicles.

There is no trash pit. Waste is dropped directly on the floor and pushed by a front-end loader into a hole that drops down into one of the two massive trash compactors in the buildings lower level. Fluorescent lights keep the place brightly lit like a big box store. And daylight streams through clear ceiling panels. There’s a sprinkler system that sprays-down the garbage with deodorizing mist. Workers wash the concrete floor clean every night with captured rainwater.

Commercial waste haulers dump garbage at the new South Park transfer station. Photo: Bill Lucia

Typically six staff members keep the place moving, operating heavy equipment, running the compactors, checking-in trucks. One worker inspects the self-haul pile for misplaced recyclables, like cardboard and metal, which are removed and placed in nearby dumpsters. There are piles of tires and car batteries, a tank for motor oil, a dumpster for bikes. The bikes are sent to the nonprofit Bike Works, where they are repaired or used for parts.

On a recent afternoon a man backed his Subaru up to the self-haul pile and threw away a mattress. The compost heap consisted mostly of tree limbs and a few dry Christmas trees. A row of five Stairmasters was lined against one wall. Garbage trucks came and went at a metronomic cadence, emptying 8- to 10-ton loads. In October 2013, 1,951 garbage trucks emptied waste at the station.

The squat, rectangular facility in Wallingford is more dungeon-like. The interior is dusky, illuminated by bluish metal halide lights and shafts of daylight coming through the louvered walls. The openings in the walls allow air to flow into — and out of — the building.

“You can’t control the dust, you can’t control the odor, because everything is wide open,” said Ken Snipes, director of SPU solid wastes’ operations and maintenance branch. The new facility will have solid walls and an improved ventilation system, designed to reduce the amount of noise and smells that escape into the surrounding neighborhood.

SPU's Wallingford transfer station has louvered walls that allow garbage dust, and odors, to escape. Photo: Bill Lucia 

The building is slightly bigger than two Olympic-size swimming pools. And, with self-haul customers and commercial garbage trucks wheeling in and out to dump trash, it can get cramped. Unlike the South Park center, garbage truck drivers often have to wait for a turn to get inside. On busy days, Snipes says, the self-haul line can get backed up to 34th Street.

Between 233 and 446 commercial garbage trucks passed through the facility each month in 2012, and monthly self-haul traffic ranged from 8,859 to 13,226 vehicles. The new station will have separate areas for commercial trucks and self-haulers, intended to improve the flow of vehicles in and out of the facility.

Even though workers wash the floor, the place seems layered with decades of grime. Staff offices were so inundated with dust, Snipes says, that they were moved into construction trailers outside of the building about 20 years ago.

And then there’s "The Pit." Over the years people have fallen or jumped into the sunken trash pile, which sits about 10 feet below the surface of the transfer station floor. Snipes says that during his three years on the job, he’s seen or heard of three instances where people fell into the pit at the old south transfer station. None of them was seriously injured.

One man jumped in to retrieve a laptop. “I think his ego was hurt,” Snipes said. “Because we said, ‘They threw that away, more than likely, because it doesn’t work.’” The leap would’ve been for naught anyhow. SPU rules don’t allow customers or employees to salvage tossed-out items.

A bulldozer pushes trash in "The Pit" at the Wallingford transfer station. Over the years customers have fallen into the sunken trash pile. Photo: Bill Lucia

“I’ve seen people almost fall in,” says Ahanu Zimmerman, a maintenance lead, who has worked at the north station for five years, keeping the place clean, overseeing customer safety and tarping truckloads of trash. Like the South Park facility, the new Wallingford station will not have a pit. Self-haul customers and garbage trucks will dump waste on a flat floor.

Zimmerman has seen some oddball objects dumped in the pit. In January 2010, he and his coworkers discovered an artillery round. “It looked like a giant window weight to me,” he remembers. The facility was shut down so that the bomb squad and U.S. Army explosives technicians could retrieve the 155-millimeter Howitzer “smoke projectile,” which according to police reports had a small, live, bursting charge, and was manufactured in 1951. 

Another time, Zimmerman says, the station crew found a sighting scope for a rocket launcher. "There are all kinds of things that come through here,” he says. Last year a BBQ grill propane tank exploded in the metal recycling bin. Nobody was hurt.

The smell at the north transfer station last Friday wasn’t bad. But Zimmerman says that it can be. “When you first come here,” he says, “you won't eat dinner for a while.”

The fragrance is especially pungent in the springtime, when container loads of used fishing nets and “fish byproducts” arrive. “The container will sit outside for a week or two,” Zimmerman says, adding that when the material is unloaded “You’ll have to step outside.” Snipes says that SPU tries to have loads of fishing waste diverted to the south station. The blocks adjacent to that facility are heavily industrial, though there are single-family homes within three blocks.

At the north station, it’s less than 250 feet from the center of the pit, across 35th Street to the front doors of the nearest homes. “They start making noise pretty early in the morning,” says John Greig, who has rented a house on 35th Street for about a month. Because he works early morning construction shifts he’s unbothered by the station’s morning din. “There are no smells,” he adds.

Last Friday, eight 40- to 48-foot trailer loads of trash were staged outside of the south facility, waiting to be picked up by SPU trucks and hauled about 2 miles to the Union Pacific rail yard. Crows scampered around the trailer-tops. Snipes, who spent 20-years in the Air Force, said when he started in the solid waste division he “never could have imagined the volume that goes through a facility like this.” The south station processed 206,848 tons of waste in 2012, and the north facility handled 101,945 tons.

*Tonnage figures include garbage, yard waste and wood waste. Data is from SPU's year-end disposal station reports. Chart: Bill Lucia

Most of the commercially hauled waste that was dropped at the north station is from garbage trucks that cover routes north of the Lake Washington ship canal. Those loads of trash and self-haul customers will be diverted to the South Park station. Self-haul customers could also use a King County transfer facility in Shoreline. The staff at the north station will be moved to South Park to help deal with the extra volume.

Trash disposal has come a long way in Seattle. In the 1800s, trash was dumped off barges into the Puget Sound, according to SPU and during the early 1900s incinerators sprang-up around the city. When the incinerators became too expensive to maintain, dumps were built in neighborhoods including Interbay, Montlake, Genesee and South Park. Seattle began sending trash out of town, first to Kent, in the 1960s, around the same time that the Wallingford transfer station was built. 

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