(The Possible Bankruptcy of Marion County . . . )
The Tangled Web I’m concerned about the possibility of, or even the appearance of corruption in this county. If Marion County’s solid waste predicament represents County government in general, we have serious problems. I speak now as a private citizen and as a physician concerned about public health.
Like the entire industrialized world, Marion County has an unresolved problem with waste management. In a controversial decision 14 years ago, Marion County Commissioners decided to build the solid waste incinerator in Brooks, just north of Salem next to I-5. Since then, decisions and actions of county officials and plant administrators seem disingenuous and I have become quite skeptical regarding their motives, their financial relationships with each other, and their systems of gathering data “proving” plant safety and public health.
Four years ago, with no public input, Marion County Commissioners voted to extend the contract with the plant operators, Ogden-Martin (OM), to operate the incinerator for an additional 10 years beyond the original 20 year contract. The contract requires Marion County to supply 145 thousand tons of trash per year to burn. If the county doesn't supply it, ratepayers (that’s us) still pay operating costs and OM can import whatever type of trash they want to incinerate to make up the difference.
One problem I see is that any rigorous program to recycle, reduce or reuse our waste directly competes with the OM contract. Who negotiated that contract? Randall Franke was a member of the Marion County Commissioners at that time. Remember that name.
We've been told for the past 14 years that the smokestack emissions and ash pile from the solid waste incinerator are safe and meet federal guidelines. Recently, these EPA guidelines have become stricter and the incinerator can no longer legally emit the 500-800 pounds of mercury per year that they have been allowed for the past 14 years. The public, through trash fees, has payed about $2.5 million to "fix" this mercury emission problem. Mercury will no longer be discharged at levels previously seen from the smokestack. And that’s good.
But the mercury hasn’t magically gone away. Instead, it is now in the incinerator ash. So now we may have an ash problem, similar to Coos Bay, a community with a similar incinerator. They recently put a scrubber on their system to control emissions (in their case, lead rather than mercury). As a result, their fly ash is so toxic (with lead and cadmium) that it must be moved to Arlington's toxic waste dump in eastern Oregon, at a cost to the county of $265/ton.
What this all points to is the fact that the EPA’s standards are becoming more strict because of public health concerns. Retrofitting these old incinerators to comply is an expensive business for which rate payers are responsible. This also points to that old question, what health risks are we being exposed to today that will be considered toxic tomorrow? Dioxins? We know they’re in the emissions and the ash of Marion County’s incinerator. We know they’re toxic at any level. Yet we’re told there’s no problem with them being introduced into Marion County by this plant...But that’s another story.
A Deal with the Devil Unfortunately for Marion County residents, a deal with the devil may have been made on our behalf by our County Commissioners. Consider the players: the trash haulers have a monopoly in this county—not a good sign for an industry feeding at the public trough. OM itself has a cherry deal with Marion County, a contract that presently guarantees them $5.4 million dollars per year for incinerator operation—with annual increases for inflation, trash to burn, eventual ownership of the incinerator, no property tax payments, and no personal responsibility for any upgrades or problems associated with the incinerator or ashpile. In short, everything to gain and nothing to lose.
In real estate, it is prudent to look at “comparables” to get a realistic idea of the value of a deal. Using that same principle to analyze Marion County’s deal with solid waste disposal presents a revealing, if disconcerting picture. Consider this: other communities that brought in incinerators operated by OM, with contracts similar to ours, are now realizing they've made a horrible mistake.
• Lake County, southern Florida—Recycling is competing with incineration there. As they've reduced their waste stream through recycling and composting, they've been forced contractually to import medical waste and plastics (both very toxic, resulting in greater pollution with heavy metals and dioxin) to comply with their contract with OM. To the insult of increased pollution must be added the injury of a burdensome financial loss—the county's contractual costs are $74/ton, yet they receive as little as $16/ton for the imported waste.
From this story, we can infer that recycling in Florida is bad because it doesn’t support OM’s bottom line. How do you feel about a corporation dictating such terms here in Oregon?
• Warren County, New Jersey—They too have felt the sting of OM. Recent Supreme Court decisions make it illegal for counties to control the flow of solid waste. Haulers are now allowed to take the garbage to cheaper landfills and recycling facilities. Warren County is now poised for backruptcy and may default on bond debts of $77 million because, by contract, they are compelled to continue paying OM $6 million per year to operate the incinerator even though the county has been forced to lower rates to stay competitive. Warren County has no say in where OM gets the outside trash to make up for lost incinerator trash flow. OM is refusing to renegotiate the contract, leaving Warren County twisting in the wind.
Warren County’s nightmare could soon be Marion County’s day job.