Trash politics and the cost of waste

by Jordan Green

A front-end loader dumps trash into a waiting trailer in theload-out tunnel beneath the transfer station the city of Greensboroowns on Burnt Poplar Road. The trailer will be hauled 62 miles by adriver employed by Hilco transport and emptied at a private landfilloperated by Republic Services in Montgomery County. (photo by JordanGreen)

Jeryl Covington, a woman of impeccable habits of dress, a mind that churns over technical details with vise-like precision and expertise on all things related to trash, watched a driver for Hilco Transport turn his rig into the parking lot in front of Greensboro’s waste transfer station.

The trailers were lined evenly in place, some empty with tarps rolled back indicating they were ready to be pulled into the load-out tunnels to receive their cargo, some full and ready to be hitched up for the 62-mile journey to Republic Services’ Uwharrie Environmental Landfill in Montgomery County.

Covington, who heads the city’s environmental services department, eyed a slot between two trailers and judged it too narrow, but the driver surprised her.

“Oh, he’s going to do it,” she gasped. The cab swung in a wide arc on its passenger side, straightened out at what seemed to be the last possible moment and pulled the long trailer through the strait, hardly braking until the rig came to a stop.

About a thousand tons of garbage flows through the transfer station a day, according to a state solid waste audit completed last year. There it’s weighed, dumped on a vast concrete floor, mixed to achieve optimal density, tamped down and scraped into a funnel that leads down to a waiting trailer in the load-out tunnels beneath the cavernous structure.

The giant mounds of garbage on the floor combined hauls from the city’s fleet of residential and commercial collector trucks, along with private haulers that pay the city’s $41 tipping fee for the privilege of unloading their bounty. The trash and the solid waste market are already richly commingled by the time it hits the floor: Many national property management companies opt to have apartment complex garbage picked up by private companies instead of paying the city for its collection service.

Garbage is a cost for anyone who produces it. In the early 1990s, the state of North Carolina embarked on a goal of reducing the amount of waste produced per person by 40 percent. The effort failed miserably. Spurred by a super-heated economy that drove the population from 6.8 million to 8.1 million, homebuilding and other types of construction exploded while individual wastefulness ramped up by 16.5 percent. By the peak year of 2007 the state as a whole was producing 11.8 million tons of waste, but because of dampened consumerism during the economic downturn, the amount is expected to return to 2001 levels this year, at about 10 million tons.

And as anyone who has considered Tony Soprano’s line of work knows, garbage is a source of revenue for those who offer the service of collecting, transporting and disposing it. The White Street Landfill is both an asset and a liability depending on whether your objective is to bury waste or build homes and businesses with healthy tax value in the immediate vicinity of its gaping maw, its odors and activity of rumbling trucks. Earlier in this decade, the city not only buried its own household waste at the White Street Landfill, but collected fees from Republic Services and other private companies for the privilege of dumping municipal solid waste there. In 2006, that arrangement was effectively reversed when the city closed the White Street Landfill to most municipal solid waste and contracted with Republic Services to dispose of its garbage at the Uwharrie landfill in Montgomery County.

But the city still keeps its toe dipped in the waters of waste disposal. From July 2008 through June 2009, the White Street Landfill buried 7,766 tons of what people in the business like to call “screening”: the odd engagement ring flushed down the toilet in a moment of anger or, moretypically, condoms and tampons that have been screened out of thecity’s wastewater. This material is so disgusting, Covington has said,that it needs to be buried right away, and it can’t hit the tippingfloor at the transfer station and make the overland journey down toMontgomery County.

TheWhite Street Landfill also buries construction and debris — about72,000 tons of it per year. Covington told at-large Councilman RobbiePerkins in a set of written responses in late October that constructionand demolition debris dis posal generated $2.9 million for the city inthe most recent fiscal year.

Forresidents living in the area of the White Street Landfill whothreatened to sue the city for discrimination and who have longcontended that they suffer from inordinate rates of cancer and asthma,that might not exactly be the clean sweep they had expected. But thecity has held on to a part of its waste disposal business to remain aplayer in the market. Unused capacity gives the city leverage tonegotiate reasonable tipping fees from Republic Services and avoidpassing along higher costs to residents.

Thecity finally stopped accepting most municipal solid waste at the WhiteStreet Landfill and started shipping it down to Montgomery County in2006. That prompted a political backlash that eventually eroded aconsensus built around the idea of developing northeast Greensboro andallowed candidates who placed more emphasis on reducing the cost ofgovernment to build a majority over the next two elections.

Thatpriority was voiced by Bill Knight during an interview with WFMY News 2on the morning after he was sworn in as the city’s new mayor.

“Wewant to get into the facts,” he said. “There’s been a lot of talk, alot of hype, a lot of press. The four newcomers had one orientation. Wewill want to see a full presentation by the manager and his staff ofall the information. You can only make good decisions with goodinformation. We want to do what’s best for Greensboro, what is costefficient and what meets Greensboro’s needs.”

During the campaign Knight told News & Record EditorialPage Editor Allen Johnson that the city “wastes millions of dollars”transporting its waste to Montgomery County and that the costdifference is “staggering.”

Beforethe new council was sworn in, at-large Councilman Robbie Perkinsdownplayed a raging debate about the possible health risks of the WhiteStreet Landfill and the nearby EH Glass dumpsite. State healthofficials had found a higher than expected rate of pancreatic cancer inthe area but cau tioned against drawing the conclusion that there was acausal relationship.

“Thereason we’re here is to save money,” Perkins said. “We’re not reallyhere to evaluate the health risk…. How much money is it going to taketo cause us to reopen the landfill? When someone tells me a number thenI can make a decision.”

Maurice Warren II is vice-chair of the Woodhill Park Association and Democratic chair of his voting precinct.

Warrensaid he and his neighbors would like to know about any toxins that theymight have been exposed to as a result of waste disposal activities inthe area.

“Anyinformation as far as swaying opinion to reopen the landfill — no,” hesaid. “We don’t want it reopened. I did two tours in Vietnam. I’ve gotto fight it. I gave my time for my country, and now I’m going to givemy time to my community.”

Thesense that the city is losing money by not fully exploiting the WhiteStreet Landfill and that something different must be done withGreensboro’s solid waste has whetted appetites for profit in theprivate sector. At least three private groups have expressed interestin contracting with the city, including industry heavyweight Republic,a former city councilman and a little known company promising to usecuttingedge technology.

Thecost difference between continuing to send Greensboro’s trash toMontgomery County and diverting it back to the White Street Landfillhas become the most political of questions related to solid waste forthe new council: The higher the estimated savings, the greater the casefor bringing the waste back to White Street; the lower the figure, thegreater the case for maintaining the status quo or finding somealternative that does not involve the White Street area.

The estimated cost savings has shown a wild swing from a low figure of $1.5 million per year to a high number of $15 million.

Atwo-page memo drafted by interim Assistant City Manager Andy Scott toaddress the question in June cautioned, “This is a very preliminaryanalysis. Because of the complexity of the issue I recommend that ifcouncil would like to fully discuss this alternative that we engage anexperienced engineering firm to provide a fully detailed analysis.”

Infact, council has been discussing the matter in heated rhetoricalskirmishes since early 2008, when then-Councilman Mike Barber proposedreopening the landfill. Covington said the last council never receiveda briefing from her on the topic, adding that it came up during budgetplanning, and two budget briefings were canceled. Covington held abriefing on solid waste for the four new council members on the nightbefore they were sworn in. The session lasted less than two hours, andcovered cost assumptions, market forces, technological considerationsand alternatives in only the most cursory fashion. The new city councilis also scrambling to get up to speed on a controversial financingarrangement for a planned aquatic center and trying to get its armsaround a handful of lawsuits bedeviling the police department. As ofDec. 3, Covington said she did not know if and when they would call onher expertise.

Greensboro’s political class has been wrestling with the question since the city started sending its trash to Montgomery County.

“Froman economic standpoint, it makes sense for them to use the White StreetLandfill,” said political consultant Bill Burckley, who analyzed thecost savings in 2007 at the request of candidate and futureCouncilwoman Trudy Wade. Burckley provided consulting services in therecent city council election for eight out of nine victoriouscandidates, including the new mayor.

‘We’re not really here to evaluate the health risk….How much money is it going to take to cause us to reopen the landfill?’— Greensboro Councilman Robbie Perkins

Solid waste, by the numbers Distance Greensboro’s garbage travels from the city transfer station to the Uwharrie landfill in Montgomery County, in miles:

62 Amount in which garbage is valued per ton when it comes through the transfer station, in dollars:

41 Percent by which the state of North Carolina attempted to reduce personal waste production in the 1990:

40 Percent by which personal waste production increased during that time period: 16.5

Burckleysaid he estimated the cost savings at $10 million to $12 million peryear based not only on the difference between tipping fees per ton ofmunicipal solid waste collectedby the city, but also by adding “opportunity costs” from revenue thatcould be generated by enticing private companies such as Republic topay the city for the privilege of bringing waste back to White Street.

Sincethe city began exploring the option of diverting its waste from theWhite Street Landfill in 2001, Republic has built its own transferstation south of Greensboro. Then, almost exactly a year ago Republiccompleted a merger with Allied Waste. The new company now operates 219landfills in 40 states, serving more than 13 million customers.

“I can’t say these private tons are going to come here because I’m not in the game anymore,” Covington said.

Burckleyargued in response that considering Greensboro’s proximity toRepublic’s Guilford County customer base, it only stands to reason thatthe private company would be able to cut costs by bringing waste toWhite Street.

Thewaste handled by the Greensboro transfer station that is collected bythe city’s fleet of garbage trucks from residents — 62,000 out of238,000 tons per year — is relatively modest. In contrast, Covingtonsaid, the city charged Republic for 80,000 tons per year thatsubsidized city-collected garbage disposal before it started sendingits trash to Montgomery County and Republic made its own arrangements.

“Theonly waste that I own is the 62,000 tons that comes in from homecollection,” Covington said. “The apartment complexes [with dumpsters]that are on our front-loader service can go with Republic.”

The1.9 million cubic yards of capacity left in the permitted portion ofthe White Street Landfill wouldn’t provide enough volume to make iteconomically advantageous for Republic to pay the city’s tipping fees,Covington said.

Republicspokeswoman Peg Mulloy said she could not say whether the company wouldbe likely to do business with another entity operating the White StreetLandfill, but said Republic expects to have a representative at a citystaff meeting this week to review a Request For

Proposalsfor privatized waste disposal. The Request For Proposals was issued atthe request of a group led by Bob Mays, a member of the city’sredevelopment commission and a former city council member.

Covington’scost analysis assumes a relevant waste stream of 62,000 tons per year,excluding the commercial waste picked up by the city, and arrives at asavings of $2 million to $2.5 million.

Thecity’s budget office arrived at an estimated cost savings of $2.4million last spring by subtracting revenue reduction from expenditurereduction. The budget office’s estimate assumes the relevant wastestream at 120,000 tons, which combines residential and commerical trashpicked up by field operations. This analysis assumes a cost of $36 perton to process waste through the transfer station under the currentsituation and a tipping fee of $29 per ton charged for disposing it atthe White Street Landfill under the new scenario.

Thereare potential savings to be realized by maximizing the productiveefficiency of the White Street Landfill, considering that even withmost of Greensboro’s waste going to Montgomery County the city stillbears operational costs in closing existing sections of the landfilland monitoring the site. Also, the city is already paying staff tohandle construction and demolition material and screening at WhiteStreet. The major savings would be realized by reducing operationalexpenditures at the transfer station, but personnel costs would remainthe same there.

Covingtonand Perkins are quick to point out that the unlined Phase II, whichreceives construction and demolition, is operating without a permit.That means the state could shut it down at any time. In that event, theroughly 70,000 tons of construction and demolition — with its $2.9million annual revenue stream — would be transferred to Phase III. Thatsection is estimated to have about six more years of capacity left. Toexpand the landfill by opening a Phase IV, the city would have to buyland, conduct environmental studies, hold a public meeting, dig thehole and obtain an operating permit — a process Covington estimateswould take a minimum of five years.

Perkinshas also said that the city promised to build a road from ConeBoulevard to Nealtown Road to relieve truck traffic through residentialareas on White Street. Transportation Director Adam Fischer said theroad project, including a bridge across North Buffalo Creek, isbudgeted at $9.1 million and is anticipated to start late next year orin early 2011.

Consideringthe range of estimated cost savings attached to the city’s diversion ofits trash to Montgomery County, the burden to taxpayers could beconsidered roughly equivalent to the $1.8 million spent to plug theGreensboro Coliseum Complex’s annual operating deficit.

Members of council and staff have wrangled over lesser amounts.

InDecember 2007, staff scrounged up $500,000 at council’s request to fundthe police department’s robbery suppression squad by implementing ahiring freeze across all departments. More recently, the city plugged a$7.5 million budget gap last year, in part, by delaying scheduledvehicle purchases. By the lowest estimated cost savings of redirectingwaste to the White Street Landfill, the city could have easily restoredcuts to allow the library’s mobile unit to make visits to daycares, andput funds back into street maintenance, right-of-way maintenance andsnow plowing.

Somecurrent and recent costs faced by the city include $6.9 million toclose a financing gap for the aquatic center; $6.2 million for theGreensboro Sportsplex; $6.1 million for the Battleground Rail Trailproject; $4.6 million for the South Elm- Eugene Fire Station, scheduled to be built next year; $3.5 million for the McGirt-Horton Library; $2.9 millionfor the new Carolyn Allen Community Park; $1.3 million for one hybridelectric transit bus and 11 small buses; and $1.1 million for thedelayed Florida Street Connector.

Yetreversing the city council’s 2001 decision and expanding the WhiteStreet Landfill carries a notable opportunity cost, along with itsimmediate savings: stunted residential and commercial development,along with depressed property values and correspondingly low taxrevenue in the city’s northeast quadrant.

Themap of northeast Greensboro looks like the thumb side of a mitten, withWhite Street Landfill sitting in the crook between a thumb ofdevelopment spreading east along East Wendover Avenue and a forefingerrunning northby-northeast with US Highway 29.

Boostersof northeast Greensboro like to say that the area is ripe for economicdevelopment considering the future construction of the final phase ofthe urban loop and the fact that the city is boxed in by othermunicipalities in virtually every other direction.

“There’sno progressive urbanized community in North Carolina that’s going toexpand a landfill that sits in their community,” said former MayorKeith Holliday, who led the council that closed the landfill in 2001.“You stifle all the development and economic impact of northeasternGreensboro.”

Thesiting of the transfer station off of Interstate 40 near the westernportion of the urban loop and next to a major railway made sense bothbecause it could quickly direct trash cargoes onto major transportationcorridors, but also because it was near an epicenter of the decadeplusconstruction boom that wound down last year. Northwest Greensboro hasbenefited from the highest level of economic activity in the city, andhas accordingly produced the highest share of waste.

“Thatwas the impetus behind building the transfer station: to not always besending garbage to Montgomery County, but to someday be able to routeit to a regional landfill,” Holliday said.

“Weshould take the Randleman Lake model, and apply it to a regionalsolution for a Triad landfill to take care of our waste probably forthe next hundred years,” he added.

Thecompeting pressures to reduce government spending, keep new solid wasteout of the White Street Landfill and put people to work have driven asearch for alternatives.

Landfillsremain the most costefficient approach, considering that land remainsrelatively cheap in the upper Piedmont region of North Carolina andreal estate doesn’t command the kind of premium prices that justifyhigh tax rates which could pay for expensive waste disposaltechnologies such as plasma gasification, waste-to-energy incinerationplants and bio-conversion operations, Covington said.

“Thatwill change if we become highly urbanized,” she said. “Or if we becomebeachfront. Or if we become recreational, like Florida.”

St.Lucie County, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, is slated to become thefirst local government to operate a plasma gasification plant in theUnited States, when it starts accepting waste in 2011. It also haslittle land available for burying trash because of a shallowgroundwater table. Covington said St. Lucie County’s waste disposalcosts, when calculated by ton, are significantly higher thanGreensboro’s.

Ingeneral, the private groups that have approached Greensboro’senvironmental services director about pursuing alternative approachesto handling the city’s solid waste have struck her as unprepared.

“Someof the fly-by-night companies that come in and talk to me don’t evenknow what their regulatory agency is,” Covington said. “If you don’teven know what permits you need, you don’t have any business talking tome. I’m like, ‘You’ve never heard of DENR? The name Paul Crissman [thestate solid waste section chief] doesn’t mean anything to you?’ Let metell you: You want DENR to be your best friend.”

Wastereduction is one way to extend the life of landfills, whether inGreensboro or elsewhere. And Greensboro holds some bragging rights inthat department. Among urbanized North Carolina counties, GuilfordCounty produces 1.4 tons of garbage per person. Neighboring ForsythCounty generates 1.5 tons. Mecklenburg County tops the list as the mostwasteful urbanized county with 1.7 tons, while Durham County sets thebar for thrift at 1.2 tons.

“Iwould say one of the reasons why Guilford might be lower is becausethey have a high-performing recycling program in Greensboro,” staterecycling director Scott Mouw said. “[Greensboro] has a very aggressiveand comprehensive commercial recycling program. An example of that isthat by state law bars and restaurants have to recycle beveragecontainers. Most cities just let bars and restaurants deal with it ontheir own by contracting with private collectors.

The competing pressures to reduce government spending, keep newsolid waste out of the White Street Landfill and put people to workhave driven a search for alternatives.

Greensboro is one of the few cities that have said they were going to do it.”

Greensborocould also reduce its waste stream by instituting mandatory composting,like San Francisco. Yet there’s still a cost attached to paying someoneelse to handle your refuse. San Francisco transports its compost to acommercial facility 70 miles outside of the city. The revenue fromselling compost to organic farmers essentially covers the cost oftransporting it and processing it, city spokesman Mark Westlund said.

“We’vealways wanted to put our refuse to the highest use,” he said. “We wantto reduce as much as possible. The city has set goals of 75 percentdiversion by 2010 and zero waste by 2020.”

Greensboro’squest for cost savings has caused the city to explore the possibilityof privatization. Ironically, some fear that course could lead to theexact opposite outcome.

“Ourbest position is to try to keep the city of Greensboro in the garbagegame so that we can keep the longer-term rates reasonable for thepeople of Greensboro,” Perkins said. “We could privatize the wholething, and 10 years down the road people could be paying three times asmuch for garbage disposal.”

Perkinssaid if the council ends up approving a contract as a result of thecurrent Request For Proposals it will have made “a horrendous mistake.”