Solid waste plan protest
June 17, 2008 · Updated 2:53 PM
An overhaul of how San Juan County collects and transports recycled material drew heavy criticism Feb. 12 as about 50 residents, most of them from Lopez, converged on the county courthouse in Friday Harbor to make their opposition known.
Inside the historic brick building on Second Street, county commissioners were expected to decide the fate of a contract proposal that would pave the way to negotiations with Waste Management, Inc. for transportation of recycled material. Presentation of the contract was again postponed until for March 12.
There is not a contract to present to you at this time, county Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord told the commission, adding that his office had retained legal services of a Seattle attorney experienced in contract negotiations and litigation against Waste Management, Inc. The hallmark of good attorneying is knowing when you need help.
Gaylord said attorney Stephen DiJulio of the law firm Foster, Pepper and Shefelman was appointed special deputy prosecutor after numerous inquiries by counties and cities led him to believe his office was overmatched by Waste Management. Commissioners John Evans and Darcie Nielsen had instructed Gaylords office to review the contract and offer a legal opinion before a final decision was made. DiJulio receives $300 per hour, Gaylord said.
After discussions with prosecutors throughout the state, we concluded a small county prosecutors office was not up to snuff to match up to Waste Management and that we needed help, he said.
Sub-contracting the transportation of recycled material is expected to save the Solid-Waste division of county Public Works $100,000 annually.
The proposed shift in hauling of recycled material would put an end to separating certain items; waste paper, aluminum, tin, cardboard and plastic. Waste Management has offered to transport co-mingled recycleables to its material recovery facility near Seattle for $45 per ton in exchange for control over the material. Their bid was the lowest of three, far below the $72.50 bid by San Juan Sanitation and the $105.50 bid by Rabanco.
The bids are in and the bids are odd, said Commissioner Rhea Miller, noting the proposed savings amounts to 1-percent of the solid waste budget. We were going to do this for fiscal responsibility but now were hiring a state-of-the-art attorney and were asked to put $75,000 for capital improvements at the transfer site.
Miller said Public Works can save money by installing balers at the Orcas and San Juan islands transfer stations, replicating the system on Lopez, which condenses recycled material and satisfies local goals of reducing waste. It also allows the county to keep control of revenue from sale of material.
Although a decision on the contract was delayed, critics of the MRF plan seized the opportunity by presenting a long list of objections to dismantling an award-winning recycling operation and transferring control of garbage and recycling disposal to Waste Management.
This low-ball bid is sweet poison, said Paul Chadwick of San Juan Island, who cautioned commissioners about Waste Managements 1,339 subsidiaries and history of environmental, criminal and anti-trust violations. Green issues aside, there are questions about this corporation and whether you want to dance with them.
As evidence, Chadwick offered the recent tumble of Waste Managements stock after writing off $17 million of losses because of ties with Enron and the $7 million the companys auditor, Arthur Anderson, recently paid to settle charges of filing false and misleading audits for Waste Management with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Timothy White of Orcas Island said a conversation with a representative of Waste Managements ethical division was disturbing, although enlightening. The spokesman was either unaware or unable to comment about recent criminal fines or ethics violations against the company or its auditor, such as the $457 million fine levied against the corporation last year in Connecticut for fraud and misleading investors, White said.
Ona Blue of Lopez Island expressed anger about the lack of public participation in what she described as an incredibly, incredibly big deal. Opposition to the proposed change is universal on Lopez, Blue contended, regardless of income, profession or political affiliation.
Its obvious to me this is not a real bid, they (WM) just want a foot in the door and were going to get screwed, said Blue, whose husband Neil Hanson operates the transfer station on Lopez. Everybody gets it.
What San Juan Island would get by the move to the MRF is an overdue and sorely needed improvement to its transfer station, said Commissioner Darcie Nielsen. San Juan generates more than 50 percent of county garbage and the proposal promises enough money to make necessary changes for efficient and safe collection of trash and recycling, Nielsen said.
My goal all along is to fix the San Juan Island site...we need to free-up a significant amount of money to fix the site, she said, noting that roughly $1 million is required for remodel while reassuring critics that fiscal responsibility remains top priority. Im not signing any contract with anyone that Im not happy with.
Nielsen defended hiring a $300-per hour legal consultant as a wise precautionary step, consistent with the countys track-record in fighting cell-towers and jet-skis. She also noted the seven-year history with Waste Management for garbage disposal.
Theres been no problems that Im aware of, she said of the on-going relationship.
Commissioner John Evans said county solid-waste faces serious budget problems due to debt from closure of the landfill on Orcas and a glitch in operations several years ago with the franchise hauler at the time, San Juan Sanitation. As an enterprise fund, solid-waste operations are supposed to pay for themselves without extra taxpayer support, Evans said.
The fund has not been entirely pure over the years, however, he said, noting county commissioners have authorized repeated supplemental appropriations to keep solid-waste operations afloat. Counties are not allowed to operate in the red...we cant run up deficits like the federal government can do.
Evans said county Auditor Si Stephens may soon take a harsh look at continuous transfers from the general account to keep solid-waste operations balanced.
The one significant variable in the system is the cost of recycling, he said. MRFs are the state-of-the-art for recycling because of economies of scale. My expectations are when the contract comes before us, if its a good deal well pursue it. and if its not, we wont.
Scott Rasmussen reports on regional government and education for sanjuanjournal.com and The Journal of the San Juan Islands, sister publications of islandssounder.com and The Islands Sounder. He can be reached at (360) 378-4191 ext. 13 or email.