Tale of two landfills - Page 5

With a pair of giant corporations vying for control of San Francisco's trash, will our zero waste dreams ever become a reality?

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San Francisco has trucked its trash to the Altamont landfill since 1987
PHOTO BY LUKE THOMAS

The 1932 Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance gave the company now calling itself Recology a rare and enviably monopoly on curbside collection, one that had no expiration date and would be difficult to change. "So legally, it's not an option," Assman said.

Retired Judge Quentin Kopp, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and California Legislature, got involved in an unsuccessful effort to break Recology's curbside monopoly in the 1990s when the company then known as NorCal Waste asked for another rate increase. But he found the contractual structure to be almost impossible to break.

"The DPW director examines all the allowable elements and makes recommendations to the Rate Board," Kopp said. "And the Rate Board consists of three people: the chief administrative officer, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission."

SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington says Recology's curbside monopoly is unusual compared to other places, but it also makes the company a strong contender to the landfill contract. "It comes down to economies of scale. If you don't have a contract with a facility that does recycling or waste disposal, you can collect the garbage, but where are you going to take it?"

Harrington said the situation was better before Recology purchased Sunset Scavenger, which mostly handled residential garbage, and Golden Gate, which mostly handled commercial garbage. Today, he said, the city has little control over commercial garbage rates or Recology's overall finances. "That made it more difficult, and we only set the rate of residential garbage collection," Harrington observed. "They have never come before the rate appeal board over commercial rates. I have asked who subsidizes whom, the commercial or the residential, and they say they think the commercial. But we have no ability to govern or manage those rates."

WM's Skolnick said a positive outcome of the current contract negotiations would be to break Recology's monopoly on curbside collection. "We have to work to keep our business. That's the competitive process. But we have a competitor that can encroach into our area even though we can't encroach on San Francisco. And they claim to have one of the most competitive rates in the country — but try getting those numbers," he said.

WM's David Tucker added: "We'd like if San Francisco jumped into the 21st century and had a competitive bid process."

 

DIRTY BUSINESS

The battle between WM's local landfill option and Recology's plan for a longer haul but with more diversion of organic materials is complicated, so much so that the local Sierra Club chapter has yet to take a position.

Glen Kirby of the Sierra Club's Alameda County chapter told the Guardian that the Sierra Club's East Bay, San Francisco, and Yuba chapters are taking a "wait and see what becomes public next" stance for now. But insiders say the club's national position is against landfill gas conversion projects like that at Altamont, possibly favoring Recology's bid.

Recology proponents claim the Sierra Club didn't initially oppose landfill gas conversions because its members in the East Bay benefit from an open space fund that WM pays into as mitigation for a 1980 expansion at the Altamont. And Alberti claimed that WM's analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the competing waste transportation plans was flawed.

"Their calculation is a shell game. And it relies on Recology using diesel when we are using green biodiesel trains. This is not your grandfather's train any more. One train equals 200 trucks," Alberti said.

But WM's Lewis defends the company's analysis, which showed Recology's bid to be worse for greenhouse gas emissions than WM's.

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