SILVERTON, Ore. (AP) — There's more to the wood waste landfill at the old Johnson Lumber Co. site than meets the eye.
Bob Hedal was looking for an investment opportunity when his son drew his attention to the landfill and its precious commodity -- pure, organic mulch.
From the outside, the site looks like a useless dump. But the landfill has a hidden gold mine: Piled high and deep with aged organic wood material, it is known by some for its nutrient-rich mulch -- the product of years of idle composting.
The plan for the site, a project named Silverton Earth Products, is to remove all the wood waste by excavating the material and sorting out the mulch, rocks and wood products to sell to nurseries and landscapers. Phase two involves leveling the site, paving it and selling it for use as a business park.
"We're returning the landfill to a usable piece of property," Hedal said. "If we pull this off, everyone will gain a little."
Hedal's background in electrical engineering management lent him useful experience in overseeing the project, but for the most part, he's a hands-off investor.
"He's our sugar daddy," joked Ron Bascue, a construction worker for more than 50 years who sold his own company to help run Silverton Earth Products.
Bascue heads up the ground work of excavating and sorting with Hedal's son, Brad. He's also a self-proclaimed history buff, especially when it comes to the lumberyard's past.
According to Bascue, Johnson's company started the lumberyard in 1936 and sold it in the 1960s. It changed hands several times before the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality announced a ban on "wigwam" wood waste burners in the early 1970s, essentially forcing the operation out of business.
The company that owned it at the time applied for wood waste landfill status with the department, since it "couldn't do anything else with it," Bascue said. Once they were approved, they pushed all of the wood waste into a corner of the site before selling the property. Since then, the department has regularly monitored the site for groundwater contamination.
The landfill was bought and sold a few more times before Hedal bought it in April. He sees it as a "win-win-win" opportunity to do something beneficial for himself and the others involved, nurseries and landscapers and the community.
And, he said, the soil analysis was almost too good to be true.
"The soil analysis proves there's no chemicals and no hydrocarbons in this mulch," Hedal said. "It's totally pure. This stuff is a cross between composted wood and humus -- it's very rich."
Hedal said they are currently waiting for their organic certification to be made official.
Brad Hedal estimated there are 105,000 cubic yards of material in the massive piles, buried as deep as 30 feet below ground. The screener plant, a machine that sorts the raw material into three piles, sorts at around 50 cubic yards per hour.
Because they can't work during the rainy season due to the risk of ground water contamination, the entire process will probably take three years, depending on how quickly the product sells.
Bascue, who originally learned about the landfill's potential from one of its former owners, said he plans to buy the site in the second phase of the project.
"I knew it would be a good opportunity," Bascue said. "I came out and dug some test holes to check the product, and everything I got was all mulch, so I thought we better get our hands on this."
The Oregon Garden and Master Gardener program at Oregon State University's Marion County Extension Office have been the first customers in the project's opening months. While Bascue said that they don't have prices set in stone for the mulch, they are happy to deliver and can process small and bulk orders.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.