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Garbage is piled so high, Snohomish County dumps need to close before trash combusts

UPDATED: Fri., May 6, 2022

Steaming municipal solid waste is piled almost to the ceiling at the Everett transfer station creating a risk of spontaneously combusting due to decay and heat.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Steaming municipal solid waste is piled almost to the ceiling at the Everett transfer station creating a risk of spontaneously combusting due to decay and heat. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
By Amanda Zhou Seattle Times

Snohomish County has a smelly 45-foot-tall problem that could go up in flames.

Two Snohomish County transfer stations are almost at capacity as the amount of garbage has reached unprecedented levels due to supply chain issues, said Snohomish County Public Works Director Kelly Snyder.

The situation is so dire that the Snohomish County Council last month approved a $2 million emergency contract with another waste-management company for extra hauling.

It’s also forcing the county to close all drop boxes and transfer stations the next two weekends starting Saturday to give staff a chance to clear out the backlog.

The pile of trash isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s also dangerous, Snyder said. The more than 4,200 tons of garbage at the Airport Road site and 2,250 tons at the Southwest location could “spontaneously combust,” she said.

As garbage sits, it decomposes and heats up. If enough heat is generated, a fire could quickly spread through the pile and damage the facility. The cores of the piles are already 130 degrees, Snyder said, and the Southwest transfer station has already had a close call with a small fire about a week ago.

“Our quick-acting staff were able to get it down off the pile, spread it out, and the fire was put out very quickly,” Snyder said.

A 24-hour “fire watch” has been instituted for the past couple of weeks, she said, and workers are vigilantly monitoring the heat of the piles while also keeping an eye out for smoke and flames.

Unlike King County, Snohomish County has no direct access to open landfills. All garbage, from construction debris to residential trash, must be placed in shipping containers, driven to a rail system in Everett and then taken by train to a landfill in Klickitat County.

But for several weeks, staffing issues among Snohomish County’s contractors has led to a shortage of available shipping containers. The issue has also impacted Island and Skagit counties, where officials have had to temporarily close transfer stations as well, Snyder said.

Snohomish residential customers with curbside pickup are largely unaffected, Snyder said. However, the piles of garbage at the two transfer stations are so colossal that only two garbage trucks can be in the facility at a time, slowing pickup schedules, she said.

If the transfer stations reach capacity, it would trigger a complete shutdown, as happened in 2008, Snyder said. To avoid that, the transfer stations, including the North County site, will be closed May 7-8 and May 14-15 to allow staff from all facilities to disperse the pile at the Airport Road and Southwest locations starting at 3 a.m., she said.

“We’re just asking the public to be patient with us and our teams as we try to restore order here,” Snyder said.

The county’s household hazardous-waste drop-off station in Everett will remain open to the public, as officials say the garbage slowdown does not impact services at that facility.

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