Dumped by Raleigh?

by Sam Hieb

As you can probably imagine, reaction to Sen. Trudy Wade’s landfill bill now working its way through the General Assembly was mostly negative, at least among environmentalists and the mainstream press.

The NC Conservation Network almost immediately organized a petition drive, urging citizens to tell their legislators that they “don’t want [North Carolina] to be full of towering toxic trash dumps that are unsafe for our communities.”

The News & Record, which hasn’t shown a lot of love for Wade since she joined the Senate, piled on (no pun intended). Speculation from the local paper of record was Wade’s bill would serve to reopen Greensboro’s White Street landfill.

Editorial writer Doug Clark saw reassurances from Wade and Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger that only local governments can open or re-open landfills as “lip service” to local autonomy, given the many bills in this session that would affect local government.

“Rental inspections, annexations, redistricting, airports, water systems, school boards, you name it. The legislature is exerting state control,” Clark writes. “It can, if it wants, open a landfill whether the local government approves or not. And it would surprise no one if that were to happen.”

Look, I understand landfill opponents’ vigilance, with announcements that former council member Mike Barber and former Mayor Bill Knight are running for council in the November election.

Barber and Knight are both budget hawks — thank goodness someone is — and in the past have made noise about reopening White Street in order to ease the burden on all city taxpayers. If both win, it could swing a possible landfill vote.

However, according to YES! Weekly’s Eric Ginsburg, Barber said he underestimated the sensitivity of the landfill issue during his previous term and does not plan to revisit it.

Indeed Wade’s bill would make it easier to permit more landfills, a notion that has environmentalists wringing their hands. With that in mind, though, I’ll submit that in turn the bill will reduce the chances the White Street will reopen.

Let’s examine the situation within the confines of reality as it exists and (for the sake of argument) will exist in perpetuity: White Street is closed and Greensboro will ship its garbage elsewhere, at considerable cost.

The environmental lobby has been so successful at politicizing garbage that people forget it’s a business like anything else. The object of business is to make money, and how much money they make is subject to market forces.

Problem is landfill opponents want it both ways. They want government to abdicate one of its core functions — disposing of its citizens’ garbage — yet they don’t want to subject it to market forces either, which a John Locke Foundation report argues is the future of waste disposal.

With more and more local governments shuttering landfills, cities and towns now have the opportunity to “be able to shop around and seek the most cost-efficient and environmentally friendly landfill services for its citizens,” JLF says.

Which is what Wade’s bill would do: Open market forces to garbage disposal by allowing more landfills to open. Which is a good thing, when you consider that lack of competition creates problems of its own.

Raise your hand if you followed closely negotiations over Greensboro’s garbage contract last year. (I thought so.)

It wasn’t pretty. The city had exactly two choices for contractors to haul its garbage. And that choice only came about after questions were raised about city staff’s preferred contractor, Republic Services. Republic still got the contract but just the process of introducing a competitor, Waste Connections, saved the city about $1 million per year.

And with limited choice in contractors came the expected conflict-of-interest issues.

One involved Wade, who was on the Greensboro City Council at the time. She admitted out front that her cousin owned A-1 Sandrock, the prime subcontractor for Waste Connections.

Yet another involved fellow councilmember Zack Matheny, who at the time was employed by Green Day, which is a competitor to A-1 Sandrock’s sister company. A local attorney representing A-1 Sandrock raised the issue as to whether or not a Matheny vote against Waste Connections would benefit his employer.

After all this, would it be any surprise to hear that Republic also operates the landfill where it dumps Greensboro’s garbage? As long as Greensboro abdicates its core responsibility to take care of its own garbage, the least that should happen is the city should have a broader market — in terms of where to haul its garbage and who hauls it — in order to, as JLF put it, “seek the most costefficient and environmentally friendly landfill services for its citizens.” Which in turn makes it less likely that White Street will reopen.