Patrick Robinson
The new $76 million South Transfer station, due to open in the next 30 to 45 days (at the earliest) is a Leed Certified waste management facility SPU hopes will last at least 50 years.-- Click the image above to see more or see the gallery below the story.

SLIDESHOW: New South Transfer Station nears completion with promise of improved experience

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While it may not evoke the thrill of visiting a new water park or movie theater, Seattle Public Utilities hopes the new South Transfer Station in South Park, 13 years in the making, will give residents and professionals a few good reasons to smile.

The new station is still in the fine-tuning stage and will not officially open for at least another 30 to 45 days, but the change from the old station should be like moving out of a studio apartment into a colonial mansion.

The West Seattle Herald toured the $76 million, 100,000 square foot facility on March 7 to give our readers a sneak peek on what to expect.

The Shakedown
Over the next month-plus, SPU is performing a “shakedown” in the words of Solid Waste Director Tim Croll, which essentially means they are running the station through the paces of its intended purpose of handling our garbage and compost. Recyclables will continue to be handled at the old station nearby.

It’s possible, Croll said, that on your weekend dump run in upcoming weeks you might see a sign pointing you toward the new station as they plan to randomly bring everyday citizens in for test runs as well. Currently, only professional garbage and compost haulers are using the station.

Before the final blessing is given and the doors permanently open, Croll said they plan to crank the facility to full capacity test runs (a good time to “clean out your attic,” SPU’s Andy Ryan said.) There should be a press release when that happens, and we’ll be sure to pass the word along.

The User Experience
“It will be a lot more pleasant experience and safer … and it is going to be a better neighbor with a lot less noise, odor and dust.” – Tim Croll, SPU Solid Waste Director

There are a number of new features customers will encounter as they bring their trash and compost to the station, and we’ll work from the outside-in.

First, citizens and professionals have completely separate entrances, unlike the old station. The advantage, according to SPU, comes down to speed and safety.

“One of the big safety advantages we have is keeping those traffic flows separate so we don’t have people dodging garbage trucks,” Croll said. On the speed end, “It sort of like how fast could the drivers in the Daytona 500 go if they had regular commuters with them?”

There are also three lanes with automated scales for citizens instead of two, and the middle lane can switch from incoming to outgoing traffic depending on the need. The result, SPU predicts, will be an end to long lines.

Passing the scales, customers will enter an enormous facility (100,000 square feet, dwarfing the old station in comparison) with a new phenomenon showering down upon them: natural light. The station is covered in skylights, and when we toured (albeit on a day with sunshine peaking through), visibility was strong without any electrical lights turned on.

“The solid waste industry is the fourth most dangerous line of work in the United States, and most of those fatalities were associated with transfer stations and they happen with backing incidents and people getting run over,” SPU Solid Waste Operations and Maintenance director Ken Snipes said. Better lighting “reduces opportunities for people being put in harm’s way.”

Thick concrete walls separate the building into halves – one for the pros and one for the everyday citizen – and the unloading zones are significantly more spacious for tricky trailer back-ups and additional capacity (Snipes said space has jumped from six stalls at the old station to 20 at the new).

Bright neon signage directs customers to compost or garbage drop-off (they move as well, so the proportions can shift depending on what’s coming in), and as they pull up to the drop-off zone another distinct difference will come to light: A flat floor.

The old station has a pit design where customers pull up and huck their trash over a barrier down below, which, incidentally, can lead to unfortunate circumstances as Herald publisher Jerry Robinson can attest to after falling in one day. Now, customers simply shove their trash onto a flat surface and SPU workers take it from there, which should speed things along. Another advantage, according to Snipes, is that SPU’s front loaders can more easily cherry-pick recyclables from waste.

The trademark dust and odor generally associated with transfer stations should be mitigated by a misting system covering the entire area. Non-toxic deodorizers can be added to the water if the stench is especially strong on a given day.

Behind the Scenes
As customers shove their load onto the floor they’ll notice two bright yellow boxes suspended in the air, mimicking the outline of two holes in the floor where garbage and compost goes from there (the boxes tell front-loader operators where the drop off is so they don’t get too close).

Garbage drops into big metal boxes below where two compacters (“The biggest in the world at a million bucks a piece,” Ryan said) get to work. Each compactor weighs 225,000 lbs. and can compact 120 tons of waste per hour, according to SPU. Once the box is full (25 tons) it is connected to a container on a truck and the compactor’s ramrod gives one final heave, pushing the waste into the container. From there, around 50 containers a day, six days a week, are taken to a rail yard and shipped to Columbia Ridge Landfill in eastern Oregon. Compost is sent to Cedar Grove Composting.

The station will have around 45 employees.

Working with the People
Croll said SPU met with members of the South Park community and Duwamish Tribe over the course of a year and a half before finalizing a plan for the new transfer station.

“They didn’t want it to look like a junky industrial building (make it look nice), they wanted good sound control, pollution control, they were interested in the green building parts of it, and they were interested in the artwork,” he said.

To appease those needs, SPU built the structure to LEED Gold environmental standards and will use a rain-capturing cistern for the majority of water used at the station (tap water is solely used at the old station).

Artwork wise, the citizen entrance includes towering lawn art made of old South Park Bridge parts and the external south and north sides of the building will be decorated with a map of the original Duwamish, before it was channelized (Snipes said SPU contacted the Duwamish Tribe and received their OK before doing so). The main entrance is covered with old street signs from south and southwest Seattle.

Perched above the transfer station floor is the J.P. Patches Educational Center, where the public and students can learn about the solid waste system and how to reduce garbage output at home. The walls of Patches room are adorned with the work of Seattle artist Carol dePelecyn, created out of recycled materials, and the namesake is, of course, a shout out to Patches much-loved tenure as “Mayor of the City Dump.”

Getting it Right
SPU originally stated the station would open in June of 2012, based upon projections by the contractor. That date came and went with a few slowdowns along the way, including SPU’s decision in 2011 to take down much of the steel skeleton to repaint it with a much more durable coating that will require less maintenance over time and, more recently, a sprinkler system was installed too low for truck clearance at one of the entrances.

SPU spokesman Andy Ryan explained those instances as improvements found along the way. “Whether it gets done at the front of the project or during the project, it’s good to be able to have that flexibility, obviously, to fine tune things.”

SPU started planning the new South Transfer Station 13 years ago, Ryan said, and their goal is to have a facility that will last decades longer.

“If you were painting your place, it would depend on are you renting, are you owning, are you going to leave in two years?,” Croll said. “If you are leaving in two years you might not buy the highest premium paint and finishes. If you plan to raise your family here and then have your grandkids visit you, you are going to take a different approach. And that is how we are building for this. This thing is going to last 50 years. We put up with a substandard facility for 30 years.

“That’s the lesson that we are carrying forward: Let’s get it right and it will be a great resource for our customers.”

Seattle has a goal of getting to 60 percent recycling by 2015 (we were at 55.4 percent in 2011), and Croll said the new station is an important step in that direction.

“One of the things that is going to help us move along is not only people at their homes continuing to do a better and better job of separating their materials, but here we often get loads of (recyclables mixed in with garbage). All of that stuff can be recycled if we have the room to separate it, and that is what having a big facility like this is going to allow us to do.”

The new transfer station is located at 130 S. Kenyon St., just north of the old facility.

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