Friday, October 24, 2008

Richmond transfer station fails to pay about $500,000 in tipping fees in past two years

RICHMOND — A garbage transfer station has failed to pay Contra Costa more than $500,000 in fees in the past two years, jeopardizing the county's monitoring of solid waste disposal.

Golden Bear Transfer Station, one of five waste facilities in the county, is the only one not paying the $1.20 per ton "tipping" or dumping fee that pays for environmental health and safety inspections.

Republic Services, one the nation's largest waste hauling companies, runs the former Richmond landfill and acknowledges it owes money but blames the county for not making it clear that the company needed to continue paying the fee.

During two years of nonpayment, Golden Bear has received 17,000 to 18,000 tons of garbage per month. The facility is a collection point where loads from garbage trucks are repackaged into large haulers that take the trash to landfills.

The fees help pay for Contra Costa environmental health specialists who monitor dust, rats and disposal practices. At this point, the other four garbage plants that pay the fees subsidize Golden Bear's inspections, said Sherman Quinlan, Contra Costa's director of environmental health.

Continued loss of the fees could affect the monitoring program, he said. "If it goes on much longer, we'll have to make some very hard decisions on what we cover."

The state certifies Contra Costa as the local enforcement agency. If the county fails to inspect all the facilities, the state could take Advertisementover the inspections and it would be tougher than the county, Quinlan said.

"They'd be in big trouble. The state doesn't come on site and warn of violations occurring," Quinlan said. "(The state is) more likely to use a hammer than velvet gloves."

The county collected about $1.3 million in tipping fees last fiscal year without Golden Bear's delinquent $250,000.

"Without that revenue, there's a serious potential problem for the county. There (are) a number of problems, but first and foremost is public health and safety," Quinlan said. "Things could really get out of hand. We're the only agency with the authority and responsibility to monitor."

The fees also help pay for programs to clean up and prevent illegal dumping. Republic's permit requires it to pick up illegally dumped trash in North Richmond.

The fee problem began shortly after Republic bought the 340-acre landfill in 2003. Initially, the company passed the tipping fees to its customers. That stopped when it closed down the West Contra Costa Sanitary Landfill — the state said it was filled to capacity — and turned the property into a transfer station.

"Most licenses, contracts and permits clearly spell out the fee collected and I challenge anyone to show us any written document, e-mail or even spoken conversation where we're told to collect," said Will Flower, Golden Bear spokesman. "We're not mind-readers."

The county made the fee requirement clear, Quinlan said.

"The requirement for tipping fees has been relayed on many, many occasions in these two years. It's incomprehensible that there would be any misunderstanding surrounding that," he said.

Through public records requests, MediaNews attained a 2006 e-mail and inspection report from the county reminding Golden Bear of the tipping fees. The inspection report, written a month before Republic Services stopped paying, notes: "(Golden Bear) will begin paying the (county's) $1.20 per ton tipping fee beginning with all materials crossing the scale as of Oct. 1, 2006."

Florida-based Republic Services, which pays tipping fees at its Solano and Alameda County facilities, says it's looking for a fair settlement.

"We certainly believe money is due to them because they spent resources sending an inspector to the site," Flower said. "The difference is how much they're owed."

Both sides agree, landfills and transfer stations need monitoring, particularly one with a half-century's buildup of waste.

The landfill, bordered by San Pablo Bay and North Richmond, was built on mudfill in 1953. Over time, the weight of the fill sealed the mud to block seepage, but also dropped about 30 feet of landfill into the bay. Slurry walls protect the bay, but the county is charged with monitoring the 167 feet of landfill above sea level, which includes hazardous waste.

Tipping fee revenue is also critical to Golden Bear's future, the county said. Republic Services plans numerous post-landfill operations, many that have significant health hazards requiring close monitoring. For instance, the company wants to dry sewage sludge on portions of the landfill. The dry sludge would be hauled to other facilities.

"The dust from dried biosolids will blow in the wind," said Lori Braunesreither, an environmental health specialist. Some day the public will have access to a 5-mile trail circling the base of the landfill. About half of the trail is already open.

In June, Republic Services announced it would buy rival Allied Waste to compete with Waste Management as the country's largest waste haulers. Republic could take over operation of Allied's Keller Canyon landfill in Pittsburg and a transfer station in Martinez and refuse to pay tipping fees there as well, Quinlan said.

"We've been meeting for two years and we'd like to see Republic resolve these issues before any litigation has to occur," he said.

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