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Friday October 24th 2014

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Talking Trash

Escambia and ECUA Fight It Out Over Garbage
by Jeremy Morrison

For months, Escambia County and the Emerald Coast Utilities Authority have engaged in negotiations that Interim County Administrator George Touart has described as “a freight train going down hill.” That train has now officially jumped the rails.

The ECUA board recently decided to contract with a private company to dispose of solid waste collected in the area, citing economical and environmental reasons—the company is offering a lower tipping fee and plans to turn the trash into Refuse Derived Fuel.

“We have an opportunity to take action on something that is both good for the environment and good for the economy,” ECUA board member Lois Benson said just before the Southern Waste Recovery contract was approved. “What’s not to love about the ability to direct all this waste from the landfill?”

The Escambia County Commission had a whole list of reasons not to embrace the ECUA’s decision. Commissioners, along with county staff, showed up at the utility authority’s meeting to tell them so as the contract was being considered.

“We’re not here arguing, we’re not here begging,” Commissioner Wilson Robertson told the board. “We’re somewhere in between.”

The ECUA decision will impact finances at the county-owned Perdido Landfill, where the utility currently disposes of its solid waste. At stake are millions in tipping fees, as well as the revenue stream generated by the facility’s methane production operations.

The commissioners pointed to a local flow control ordinance that mandates all solid waste be delivered to the Perdido Landfill. The ECUA board didn’t appear rattled, signing up for a 15-year contract amidst Escambia’s protest.

“Sometimes a lawsuit is the best way to find out what the situation is,” ECUA Chairman Larry Walker said.

A few days later at a special meeting, the county commission threw up a nine-month moratorium on all waste-to-energy operations in an effort to block ECUA’s efforts. At the same time, the county intends to reassess its own operations and study broader disposal options—including exploring Refuse Derived Fuel.

The possibility of a lawsuit was left to linger. And the message to ECUA was crystal clear.

“With our landfill, we can do it all,” Robertson said. “But don’t go off and do your own thing and leave us in the blue.”

Golden Garbage

ECUA is the county’s biggest customer at the Perdido Landfill, generating approximately $3.5 million every year in tipping fees.

Escambia County charges ECUA a $42.07-per ton tipping fee. Southern Waste Recovery is offering a $35-per ton fee.

Escambia presently produces methane from the waste collected at the Perdido Landfill—used as fuel, and netting the county $750,000 annually, with plans to double operations. County staff argues those revenues would be in jeopardy if ECUA diverts its loads.

Touart has told the commission that without ECUA’s hauls, the county would not be able to keep the Perdido Landfill open without dipping into the general fund. He has hinted at the possible need for tax increases if the utilities authority moves ahead with its SWR contract.

“They are dangerously close to costing the taxpayers a lot of money,” the interim administrator said. “And a lot of money trickles over to millage increases.”

The county and ECUA staff have been attempting to work out their differences for several months, with the SWR deal being put on hold. Such efforts have not gone well—something Touart has attributed to “an ego thing.”

“My olive-branch tree is almost completely empty,” he told his commissioners.

At the last minute, Touart and ECUA Executive Director Steve Sorrell presented the utilities board with a “white paper.” The county was offering a short-term, keep-the-talks-going deal of $38.50-per ton, a promise to explore waste-to-energy alternatives with the private sector and other incentives.

The ECUA board wasn’t impressed.

“I don’t believe our staff is whole-heartedly recommending it to us,” said Benson.

True, ECUA staff wasn’t glowing about the Touart-Sorrell proposal:  “There are not any guarantees this process will be successful and it may simply kick-the-can-down-the-road.”

ECUA board members painted Escambia’s landfill operations as soon-to-be-outdated. They said waste-to-energy is the wave of the future, and that contracting with SWR was a win for the environment.

The lone voice of dissent belonged to Dale Perkins. He described the ECUA’s move as a “haymaker,” and said environmental gains should be made by “landing jabs,” or a compromise-approach.

“We’re throwing a haymaker,” Perkins said. “If it lands that’s great. The problem is, it rarely ever lands and when it doesn’t you’re vulnerable.”

Escambia Kibosh

The Escambia County Commission moved quickly to squash ECUA’s plans. The board approved on May 29 a moratorium on any new waste-to-energy facilities and hinged any future such developments on their approval.

County officials held off on a lawsuit. Though they maintain that ECUA’s actions are in violation of the law—and do not constitute “recycling” as claimed, which would exempt the actions from the flow control ordinance—commissioners decided not to challenge them legally until the utilities authority actually starts to divert the waste stream.

Initially, the commission seemed set to seek injunctive relief and a declaratory judgment from the courts, but commissioners Grover Robinson and Lumon May successfully argued against an immediate lawsuit and in favor of maintaining a dialogue with ECUA.

“I’ll talk to George about anything, anytime,” said Sorrell. “But I’ve got to tell you, we already have a contract. We would have to negotiate something beyond the scope of that contract, which I don’t know what that would be at this point.”

Southern Waste Recovery officials have said that they would prefer to set up the RDF operation in Escambia County, but didn’t expect a warm reception. Another possible locale, Baldwin County, Ala., isn’t appearing too welcoming either.

Baldwin County Commissioner Tucker Dorsey showed up at Escambia’s special meeting. He wasn’t hip about the prospects of local trash being hauled into his county.

“Baldwin County, Alabama is not interested in Escambia County, Florida’s trash,” Dorsey told the commissioners. He said his fellow commissioners aren’t interested in permitting a landfill to handle ECUA’s solid waste.

Sorrell said that SWR had a number of options of where to set up its operations. He said that the ECUA would prefer to keep it local.

“We would like them to put it in Escambia County,” Sorrell said, “because there’s up to 150 jobs associated with it.”