A trashy tug of war

An uninspiring pile of construction-and-demolition debris sits waiting to be covered with dirt at the Buncombe County landfill.

A closer look reveals chunks of brick, shingles, twisted sheets of metal, plywood, gypsum board and other materials — about 80 percent of which could be recycled, observes General Services Director Bob Hunter, surveying the rubble.

That’s not what’s in store for this heap, however. And meanwhile, a threat of legal action by waste-disposal giant Waste Management Inc. — the nation’s largest trash hauler — has stalled the county’s plans to host a recycling center for such materials and a separate composting operation. The county had planned to seek agreements with two private companies that are interested in building and operating those facilities at the landfill.

The complex scenario involves both public and private interests and how they deal with the refuse generated by folks like you and me. One key player, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners, had tentatively agreed last month to change the county’s solid-waste ordinance so the county could enter into such agreements. But after Waste Management objected, board members decided May 20 to delay final action on the plan — which was part of a package deal that also would have dictated where certain types of trash could be disposed of.

The issue will come up again next month (at either the July 8 or the July 22 Board of Commissioners meeting), says County Manager Wanda Greene. The 4 p.m. meetings (Room 204 in the Buncombe County Courthouse) are open to the public.

A “deal breaker”

At issue is whether Buncombe County gets to keep the trash generated here (by requiring garbage collectors in the unincorporated areas to haul all commercial and industrial solid wastes to the county landfill). Under the proposal, franchises awarded to waste haulers would dictate where the trash could be disposed of. GDS, Griffin Waste Services and Wyatt Waste Container already dump the trash they collect at the county landfill, Hunter reports.

Waste Management, however, trucks an estimated 117,000 tons of trash each year from Buncombe County to the company’s Asheville transfer station and on to the Palmetto Landfill in South Carolina (also owned by Waste Management). The Palmetto Landfill does not recycle construction-and-demolition debris and has no composting facility, recycling experts say.

Although it might seem odd that Buncombe County actually wants more trash, Hunter explains that the county is responsible for meeting state recycling goals for trash generated in the county — and the county wants to properly manage that waste. Requiring haulers to bring their trash to the county landfill would ensure that construction-and-demolition debris would be recycled (assuming the proposed recycling facility were built and operational). Hunter also notes that private recycling businesses need a certain volume of construction-and-demolition wastes to offset costs and make such operations financially viable for them.

“For this whole project to work, we need Waste Management to bring their trash to the Buncombe County landfill,” Hunter declares. “It’s a deal-breaker if they don’t. … It really is.”

The proposal shouldn’t affect the landfill’s life span, says Hunter. He estimates that the extra volume of trash taken in would roughly equal the amount of recyclable or compostable material that would be diverted to the new facilities.

In a May 19 letter to the commissioners, however, an attorney hired by Waste Management complained that the requirement would have a “significant and adverse economic impact” on Waste Management’s transfer station, its local employees and the company as a whole. The letter also claimed that the proposed changes to the county ordinance would run afoul of the Commerce Clause in the U.S. Constitution.

After a June 5 meeting between Waste Management and Buncombe County officials, a company rep told Xpress in a written statement that the talks are ongoing.

“We’re reviewing the ordinance and we plan to continue meeting with Buncombe County officials to discuss it further,” reported Paul Hamberis, Waste Management’s public-sector service manager for the western regions of both North and South Carolina. “We have had a good relationship with the County and it’s important that its officials know where we stand and what resources we can apply to assist them in achieving their goals.

“While we also encourage waste reduction and recycling efforts, we have concerns about the constitutionality of their preliminary proposal, which we believe will negatively affect our 34 employees and fleet operations and result in a noncompetitive situation in the county,” Hamberis wrote.

However, Ron Townley, who provides technical assistance to local governments on solid-waste issues through the Land-of-Sky Regional Council, has told Xpress that recent federal case law indicates the county is on sound legal footing.

What’s more, the recycling and composting operations are “absolutely needed” in Buncombe County, he asserts.

“As we continue to grow and new homes are being built and old barns are falling down and things like that, it is a sincere — no pun intended — waste of landfill space to bury things that can be recycled,” Townley maintains.

The trash-burying business

Waste Management has been no stranger to the courtroom over the years. Since the 1970s, in fact, the company has been involved in numerous legal battles — many of them relating to its business practices — according the Web site of the Environmental Background Information Center (www.ebic.org), a New York City-based nonprofit organization.

One of the splashiest such cases occurred in November 2001, when Waste Management agreed to pay $457 million to settle a class-action lawsuit that accused the company of violating federal securities laws in connection with its merger with USA Waste Services in 1998, according to the CNN/MONEY magazine Web site.

And in December 2002, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection announced that Waste Management of Pennsylvania had agreed to pay $2.1 million in penalties as part of a settlement for falsifying waste-receipt records at the company’s Evergreen Landfill in Indiana County, Pa. The state investigation found that landfill employees had intentionally falsified records — on 63 separate occasions in 2000 and 2001– to conceal the fact that they were accepting more than the allowed amount of waste per day (exceeding the limit by a total of 2,533 tons).

Although Hamberis told Xpress that Waste Management encourages recycling and waste-reduction efforts, that statement doesn’t seem to jibe with the company’s financial goals, as expressed in an April 29 press release from Waste Management’s Houston headquarters. Its first-quarter earnings report ($2.72 billion in revenues) notes that certain “risks” could affect Waste Management’s 2003 financial statements. One such risk, says the company, is “the effects that trends toward requiring recycling, waste reduction at the source and prohibiting the disposal of certain types of wastes could have on volumes of waste going to landfills and waste-to-energy facilities.”

Locally, meanwhile, there’s a lot more at stake than just trimming Buncombe County’s waste stream. The proposed new facilities, notes Townley, are expected to serve all of Western North Carolina.

Paying a premium to do good

For more than a year, Buncombe County officials have been talking with the Raleigh-based MRR Southern about building a recycling facility at the Buncombe County landfill for construction-and-demolition wastes. MRR Southern — a sister company of D.H. Griffin Construction Co. — runs a similar facility in Wake County, reports company General Manager Chris Roof.

The Wake County operation competes with Triangle-area landfills by offering competitive tipping fees ($33/ton) for construction-and-demolition wastes. Those rates, however, are still a few dollars more per ton than what the landfills charge, Roof reports.

“It’s the same old thing,” says Roof. “Recycling’s not always the cheapest option. It is the most beneficial.”

In Buncombe County’s discussions with MRR Southern, the company has envisioned keeping all but $1/ton of the $32/ton Buncombe currently charges in tipping fees, Hunter says. The remaining $1/ton would go to the county.

Under the plan, MRR Southern would build and equip a facility (at a cost of around $2.5 to $3 million) that would employ 15-20 people to help sort and process the wastes, Roof explains. The recycled materials would include wood, metal, cardboard and aggregate (such as concrete block and brick).

“As landfill space becomes a premium, it makes good business and environmental sense to recycle construction-and-demolition debris,” Roof observes.

And despite the delay prompted by Waste Management’s legal maneuvering, Roof still sounds enthusiastic about the idea.

“Quite frankly, we’d like to work with Buncombe County any way we can,” confirms Roof. “If there’s going to be a delay, unfortunately, that’s part of our business. … Whenever the county is ready to pursue it, we’ll still be interested.”

Waste and see

Wherever Waste Management’s trash ends up, it won’t affect the viability of a proposed composting operation at the Buncombe County landfill, says Craig S. Coker, technical adviser for McGill Environmental Systems, a Harrells, N.C.-based company.

Originally, however, permission for the county to enter into an agreement with private industry to build a composting facility at the landfill was presented to the commissioners as part of a package deal that also included the franchise proposal and the construction-and-demolition recycling plan. So it, too, was put on hold last month.

McGill Environmental Systems proposes constructing an enclosed concrete-and-steel composting facility that would cost an estimated $3 million to $3.5 million to build and equip, Coker reports. The high-tech operation would cook the compost to a specified temperature (to kill pathogens and weed seeds) and would use “biofiltration” to treat the compost fumes (blowing them through a bed of wood chips, where microbes would go to work on the odor). The company has been running a composting operation in Sampson County, N.C., since 1991 and just opened another one in Chatham County last December.

Coker describes himself as a 28-year veteran of the composting business who served as vice president/director of operations for Mountain Organic Materials before it closed last year (after the dairy farm hosting it turned to other ventures).

One potential source of raw material for the composting operation would be the concentration of restaurants in downtown Asheville, as well as the WNC Farmers’ Market.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity there to recycle all that food waste,” Coker declares.

He projects taking in about 175 tons/day and churning out about 300-400 cubic yards of compost (a pickup-truck bed holds about 2 cubic yards, he says) to be sold wholesale.

Like MRR Southern, McGill would also keep all but $1/ton of Buncombe’s tipping fees, says Hunter, though no agreement has been reached. Ideally, McGill would start construction in mid-August and be up and running by March 1, 2004, says Coker. The operation would create 10-12 jobs.

Both MRR Southern and McGill Environmental Services, notes Townley, have proven track records of success in North Carolina.

“The county should — and is — welcoming the opportunity to bring green business and industry into the county,” Townley proclaims.

And since every last one of us generates some amount of trash, we all have a stake in this issue.

“This is one thing that touches everyone’s lives in Buncombe County,” Hunter observes.

Tracy Rose can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 116 or trose@mountainx.com.

“It is a sincere — no pun intended — waste of landfill space to bury things that can be recycled.”

— solid-waste expert Ron Townley

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