Four years ago when we first moved our business from Oregon to Dallesport, WA we were terrified. At the time we were processing 12,000 tons of compost per year and we had just built a facility that could handle 26,000 tons. We begged (through a Kickstarter campaign), borrowed (from Community Bank) and stole (the land lease prices from Port of Klickitat were a steal) to keep our business going and relocated. We were leveraged to the gills and thought many times about wrapping it up.
We bumped our way through the transition and some lean times afterwards. But, as in the Field of Dreams, we built it; and they came. Faster than we had imagined the new site began to fill and we found ourselves looking for increased capacity. To make this happen, we submitted an application for an expanded Air Quality Permit to the WA Dept. Of Ecology in 2016. Four tumultuous years later we received an expanded Air Quality Permit to process 62,700 tons per year. It is not the 100,000 tons per year that we requested nor that our feedstock customers need, but it was a compromise between our regulatory agency and ourselves. I think we both left the agreement slightly disappointed, which is usually a good indicator of a true compromise.
In April of this year we began building out for the expanded capacity. We took a calculated financial risk, not having a final permit in hand , but we had to move ahead in order to meet our customers’ needs. Our trusting construction and financing partners allowed us to kick things off without all the pieces in place. Phase I, which was clearing, installing subgrade utilities, and paving four acres happened at a blistering pace - five weeks total. Within three days of completion we began moving all of our feedstock to the new area (it took four front end loaders four days).
This move cleared the land to build an expanded aeration pad, directly north and contiguous to our existing aeration pad. The new pad is 130% the size of our existing pad and allows us to continuously process and turn material along with our prior infrastructure. The pad took much longer to build due to the complexity of aeration and water handling. Four months after beginning we pour 685 yards of concrete on August 15th.
We are in the final stages of installing blowers and commissioning the aeration pad, which is just in time for a new curbside program rolling out on Oct 1st for Vancouver, WA. Dirt Hugger will be the dedicated processor for Vancouver’s material; we are both excited and nervous for the expanded responsibility.
We have said internally that this expansion was both our largest financial undertaking, but at the same time the lowest risk (due to an impending new program roll out). On some levels that’s comforting and on others it’s nerve-wracking (like staring at our balance sheet).
june 28, 2019
OCTOBER 1, 2019
As we near the end of permitting and construction and enter the operational phases we have a few reflections from this process that we’d like to share for anyone who’s still reading.
1. A huge shout out to our employees, vendors, contractors, lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, and friends who helped us over many cups of coffee and pints of beer. This was a massive undertaking and the collective team pulled off what should have been a two-year construction project in six months.
2. Risk - As entrepreneurs we are getting more comfortable in taking calculated risks. Some of this risk was assuaged through public-private contracts. We appreciate City of Vancouver in writing an 11.5-year contract for this new system, which allowed us via the prime contractor to build out the necessary capacity.
3. Organics Recycling is a public service. Yes, we are a private entity owned and managed by a couple of small families, but it has come to look a lot more like a public works project. Cities, communities, business rely on composters to responsibly process their materials. Much in the way that streets need to be paved and water needs to be provided, responsible waste services are essential to a healthy and thriving community.
We display the names of our Kickstarter backers in our main office entrance – it’s literally the first thing you see when walking in. Every day we see the name of people who believed enough in us to support us financially. Those names serve as a reminder of the responsibility we have to keep organics recycling going for the region. There are many days, weeks, months, or years where it is not easy or does not seem possible, but those names help keep us going.
4. Permitting and regulation are vitally important pieces in a healthy composting industry. It protects both the public and industry from bad actors that can collapse the industry. That said, they have to be married with common sense and practical experience. Compost facilities are permitted based on the emissions from that location. There is no accommodation made for what would happen to those materials if they didn’t go to that facility. In simple terms, if we don’t take the food scraps, they go to the landfill and create methane or slightly less worse, trucked to a facility much further away. Yet, there’s no accommodation for those practical facts.
The compost industry lacks good data on composting emissions. We spent over a year debating with our regulators over emissions factors. At the end of the day it was our word against theirs; and lacking sufficient data, regulators will take the most conservative approach (not necessarily a bad thing).
There are resources if you’re having issues with permitting. We relied heavily on ORIA, which is a Governor’s office outfit in place to help exactly people like ourselves that are trying to run a business while navigating the four plus agencies regulating us (air quality, solid waste, water quality, health dept.). Thank you Aaron Everett and Shanelle Pierce.
5. We are excited for this next chapter. Thank you to all of our customers who keep buying and using compost. Without you, the entire system collapses. The work is often disgusting, dirty and exhausting but we are filled with pride when we drive by an orchard, farm or new construction project that has fed its soil with Dirt Hugger compost. As Project Drawdown delineates compost can help save the planet through carbon sequestration, but it takes you, using compost, to make it happen.
There are so many people that helped along the way - we hope to capture them all, but thank you to:
Crestline Construction, First Interstate Bank, Green Mountain Technology, Klein & Associates, Granite, Mission Construction Inc, HR Sand and Gravel, The Dalles Concrete, James Dean Construction, Knight, Davies, & Dunn, Columbia River Insurance, Friend & Reagan, Waste Connections of Vancouver, City of Vancouver, Ramboll, Klickitat County Health Dept, ORIA, & Dept of Ecology.