The chip and brush sites operated by the Klickitat County Solid Waste Department may soon be closed, and no one is happy about it.
"The county is going to close them," said Bingen Mayor Brian Prigel. "Not the recycling part, but the chip site."
The county has been operating four sites -- in Bingen, Lyle, Dallesport, and Goldendale -- that allow county residents to drop off limbs and brush up to six inches in diameter at no charge. The material is then chipped and bagged for free distribution.
Over the past nine years, the chipping operation has been paid for through two grants. The Washington Department of Natural Resources has paid about 80 percent of the costs, while the Washington Department of Ecology has paid the other 20 percent.
"We lost the DNR grant. That's what put us in this bind," said Tim Hopkinson, director of the county's Solid Waste Department.
According to Hopkinson, the program cost about $68,000 to operate in 2004, and costs continue to increase.
"That dollar figure has gone up every single year," Hopkinson said. "Nine years ago, it was $20,000. We used to use a tub grinder to chip the material, but the costs kept escalating and the volumes have gone up. There is so much volume, they just can't handle it."
Hopkinson said the sites would be shut down one at a time in a process he expects to start within the next few weeks.
"We'll probably start with Bingen," Hopkinson said. "It's the most out of control site we've got. It's become a huge fire hazard. We'll have to spend 20 grand just to get all the sites cleaned up."
Prigel said he was concerned about the closure.
"To the larger community, it's definitely a loss," Prigel said. "People will have to burn or haul brush to the transfer station. And I'm concerned with people continuing to dump it there anyway, because it's a habit."
"I expect that will be a problem at all the sites," Hopkinson said. "But if people do dump brush, they are potentially looking at a big fine for illegal dumping."
Prigel said he believed the county should consider paying for this service.
"They've always run this program off grant funds. Perhaps it's time they step up and provide stable funding for them," Prigel said. "This is a form of recycling, and I don't want to see the site closed."
Laura Mann, a member of the Bingen City Council, pointed to the irony of the county pushing wildfire protection plans -- which urge residents to clear brush from around their homes to reduce the danger of fire -- while at the same time closing the chip and brush sites.
On Feb. 1, Klickitat County and Skamania County entered into an agreement "for developing a two-county Community Wildfire Protection Plan." The plan is geared to lessening the fire danger to portions of the two counties most directly affected by potential wildfires originating in or around the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.
"Don't we want to promote people cleaning their yards and building a defensible space around their homes?" Mann questioned. "I don't know where you take the brush now. You can't burn, and you can't chip it. This is going to be a bad fire year."
Hopkinson added that the brush program appeared to be beneficial in reducing wildfire danger.
"We've had fewer wildfires since this program has been going on," he explained. "The cost of one wildfire would pay for the cost of this program, but how do you prove it? How do you prove it prevented a wildfire?"
Mann called on the county to invest some money to keep the sites operating.
"It can't cost that much to fund several chip sites around the county," she said. "It's a worthy service to the community."
On Friday, Klickitat County Commissioner Don Struck said he hoped a way could be found to keep the sites open.
"I hope they won't close, but it's possible," he said. "I've had a number of calls concerned it may close. There will probably be some lapse in that service. I think it will be out of money in the next couple of months."
Struck said the county is considering taking over the facilities.
"We're trying to decide what to do," Struck said. "I would favor trying to keep the sites open, one way or another. We've kicked around the idea of the county Public Works Department buying a big chipper, and chip it ourselves. SDS [Lumber Co.] could possibly use the byproducts for its boiler. But the machine costs upwards of $100,000."
Struck pointed out that Washington state regulations will not allow any outside burning after 2006.
"So it's even more critical to have a place to dispose of it without burning," Struck said.
Struck said he realized residents of the county will not be happy if the brush/chipping sites are lost.
"We'll probably hear the loudest cry from the people in the west end of the county," he said. "You can't burn in White Salmon, and people make good use of that facility in Bingen."