Roadkill graveyard 'stinks to high heaven'

WARRENTON — First came the deer and elk carcasses, the occasional bags of dead fish. Then someone dumped a dead horse along the dirt road near Pat Sullivan's home in Clatsop County.

A month later it's still there, half covered in a pile of sand and dirt and looking less like a horse with each passing day.

Scavengers have stripped the carcass down to the bones, leaving only tangled pieces of a mane and the hide stretched tight across the ribs. The smell — a salty, briny stench — remains. It's strong enough to tie your face into a knot if the wind blows in the right direction.

Beyond the horse, the white bones of elk and deer poke out from piles of dirt and surrounding foliage. Each pile rests on a carpet of hide and hair, apparently the only things scavengers don't eat. The bones are picked clean.

The horse was an unexpected addition to a situation Sullivan says has been constant for several years.

"Every summer it stinks to high heaven out here," said Sullivan, a former commercial fisherman who has lived in the area for 40 years. He called the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office on behalf of the neighborhood and a deputy came out and took pictures.

As far as Sullivan can tell, whenever something — be it deer or elk — is run over, it gets dumped into the narrow fold of dirt road, bushes and trees off of Perkins Lane. The strip runs parallel to U.S. Highway 101 just east of Costco and Home Depot.

There's a simple explanation and it has to do with what happens to animals after they've turned snout to pavement.

The tiny half acre of land off Perkins Lane belongs to the Oregon Department of Transportation. When an animal is hit on the state highways, often an ODOT crew is called out to clean up the mess. The bodies have to go somewhere.

"As far as formal drop sites go, that's it," said Lou Torres, an ODOT spokesman.

Not all the animals end up at Perkins Lane — sometimes an animal is hit near state land and crews can dispose of the carcass out there. For the rest, though, Perkins Lane is the final destination.

To cut down on odors and potential hazards, ODOT crews try to bury the carcasses on the far point of the property. The system works most of the time, but not always.

Problems usually start when there's a busy weekend, Torres said.

Sometimes crews are swamped with animals and the best they can do is dump a carcass and throw a bit of dirt on top. Other times, something unexpected shows up on the side of the road.

The horse, for example, was hit on a highway and no one stepped forward to claim it. The ODOT crew then had to figure out what to do with a substantially larger animal carcass than normal. They covered it with sand and dirt — most of which blew off the carcass when strong winds swept through, Sullivan said.

But with no real landfills or rendering facilities in the area, the simple "dig a hole and fill it back up" plan is the one ODOT has to turn to, Torres said.

"Year-round you get roadkill and you're in a populated area and you have to dispose of large carcasses," he said. "It's really challenging for us to find the best way to do this. ... We have to be kind of creative."

But fueled by complaints and concerns from the Perkins Lane neighbors, ODOT is looking for other solutions.

In Heppner, more 200 miles inland from Warrenton, Jeff Moore, an environmental program coordinator with ODOT, has been working on a project that could clean up the dumping problems and turn useless, smelly carcasses into compost.

In the rural, farmland area, they've built a 50 by 50 foot concrete slab. On top of this are four 20 by 20 foot boxes surrounded by a concrete berm. Inside each box is a layer of wood chips. As roadkill comes in, crews dump the carcasses on top of the woodchips, lay down another layer of woodchips, add water and let the whole mess cook for about six months.

They monitor the temperature and moisture levels — "Make sure we're getting the right bug cultures," Moore said — and the end result: usable compost.

"It's a pretty basic, simple setup," Moore said.

Currently, the compost is recycled back into the pile to help cook the next batch. The goal is build up a surplus that could be used in ODOT landscaping projects. The compost would be tested first to make sure it's safe, Moore said.

People near Heppner were wary of the plan at first, afraid the site would attract coyotes, who would, in turn, prey on livestock. ODOT obtained land use approvals and permits from DEQ and Moore said that, so far, the compost system has actually helped control the odors that would otherwise intrigue scavengers.

Heppner's dry climate made the composting process easier. Rain, along with the attendant increase in moisture and potential for water run-off, is not a problem. If the compost project makes it out to the North Coast, it would need to be modified to fit the wetter climate.

But, Moore said, "the moisture and temperature issues are not insurmountable."

Though still in its experimental phase, Moore thinks the project is a perfect solution to one of Oregon's more constant problems: What to do with roadkill.

"At the end of the year, we'll sit down with DEQ and talk about the results," he said. "I'm assuming we'll go ahead with it because it's been going really well."

In the meantime, back at Perkins Lane, Sullivan hopes ODOT at least starts digging deeper holes until they find a better solution.

Exposed carcasses attract potentially dangerous scavengers and kids play along the dirt road that leads to the ODOT property, he said. They ride their bikes and walk their dogs.

"It's all well and good until someone gets hurt or gets sick," he said.

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