Taking out the trash

Garbage disposal contract headed for approval despite legal and electoral challenges

Recology would complete its monolopy over city waste disposal with the latest contract.


A controversial city waste disposal contract appeared primed for final approval by the Board of Supervisors on July 26 (after Guardian press time) — despite being challenged by a lawsuit and initiative campaign — after two progressive supervisors rescinded their initial vote in a July 20 committee hearing and supported awarding the contract to Recology.

City staff had recommended awarding the 10-year, $112-million landfill disposal and facilitation agreement to Recology (formerly NorCal Waste Systems, Inc.), which has grown from a locally based company to the 10th largest waste management firm in the US, with $652 million in annual revenue, according to Waste Age magazine.

If the full board follows the unanimous recommendation of its Budget & Finance Committee, the vote will authorize Recology to transport and dispose up to 5 million tons of the city's solid waste at the company's Ostrom Road landfill in Wheatland, Yuba County. The contract will take effect when San Francisco's disposal agreement at Waste Management Inc.'s Altamont landfill in Livermore expires — estimated to occur in 2015.

The deal will cement Recology's control, at least for a 10-year period, over all aspects of the city's solid waste stream, at a cost of about $225 million per year, even as the company faces significant challenges, many related to the city's 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance.

That law, approved during the Great Depression to prevent conflict between competing garbage haulers, has resulted in Recology's exercising complete control over trash collection and transportation in San Francisco, without having to bid on those contracts or pay the city franchise fees.

During the negotiations over the city's next landfill contract — the only aspect of San Francisco's waste stream put out to bid — this 79-year-old law was invoked to explain why Recology has the sole authority to transport trash and compostables to Wheatland, which is 130 miles from San Francisco.

The move also comes as Yuba County is contemplating significantly increasing dumping fees at the landfill — from $4.40 per ton to $20 or $30 per ton — a hike that could erase the $100 million that the Department of the Environment (DoE) claims the Recology deal would save over a competing bid by Waste Management Inc. WM is the largest waste firm in the U.S., according to Waste Age, with about $12.5 billion in annual revenues.

On July 18, WM filed a lawsuit in San Francisco Superior Court to prevent the city from approving the agreements with Recology on the grounds that they violate the city's competitive bid laws.

"The Department of the Environment inappropriately and unlawfully expanded the scope of its 2009 'request for proposal for landfill disposal capacity' and, therefore, violated the city's competitive procurement laws," WM alleges in the suit.

WM has long held that DoE inappropriately issued a tentative contract award for both the transportation and disposal of solid waste to Recology without soliciting any other transportation bids. But DoE, which gleans $7 million annually (to operate recycling, green building, and environmental justice programs and long-term planning for waste disposal) from rates that Recology's customers pay, ruled last year that WM's objections are "without merit."

Now WM is asking the court to require DoE to scrap its award to Recology and issue a new request for proposals to comply with competitive bidding requirements.

"There is ample time for the department to issue a new RFP," WM stated July 18, noting that there is plenty of room at its Altamont landfill to accommodate the city's waste after the contract expires.