Friends Help Industry Protect Itself
By Eric Lipton
"It doesn't take you long to identify who those people are," said the South Carolina marketing expert. "If you're going to succeed, you need their help. I've never tried to work one [a landfill project] where I didn't work the local officials, the regional officials, the state officials."
Through a decade of dramatic expansion in Virginia, the trash industry has followed that strategy, cultivating alliances that stretch from the town halls of poor rural communities to the marble halls of Richmond. Today, the head of the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality is a former lobbyist for one of the nation's biggest trash companies. The chief lobbyist for another giant trash concern is the former Virginia secretary of natural resources.
One company hired influential legislators as consultants and lawyers to promote its cause with local officials in two counties. And a then-state senator negotiated a $3 million sale of money-losing timberland as the site for one of the East Coast's largest landfills after he had urged local officials to open the landfill.
In recent years, bill after bill that would have stunted the trash industry's growth or increased scrutiny of its enterprises died in the legislature, while bills to protect its markets became law.
Collectively, over the last three years, the trash industry has donated nearly $400,000 to Virginia candidates, according to campaign finance reports. The amount is modest compared with the tobacco industry, which donated roughly $1.2 million to Virginia campaigns during the same period. But it is on a level with health maintenance organizations, which face a number of state regulatory issues and contributed more than $550,000.
The story of big business working to influence public policy is not unusual, although it is fueled in Virginia's case by campaign, lobbying and conflict-of-interest regulations that give industry great leeway in advocating its cause.
Del. W.W. "Ted" Bennett Jr. (D-Halifax) said legislators are "smart enough" not to be unduly influenced by a well-connected industry, even if they have a personal relationship with some of the business's advocates. "We have our obligations to our constituents and the people of the commonwealth at large," said Bennett, who has served in the legislature for eight years. "The industry doesn't reelect me; my constituents do."
But for many watching from the sidelines, the political relationships painstakingly built by the trash industry illustrate what is wrong with business as usual.
"Being a statesman should be a far cry from being a garbage man. It is truly a shame that some people don't know the difference," said James W. Sharp, executive director of Campaign Virginia, a Richmond-based environmental group.
Enter Chambers Trash Firm
The building of the industry's political network started a decade ago in Charles City County.
The farming community, 25 miles east of Richmond, had little tax base in the late 1980s; there was no shopping center, no motel, no bank not even a red light.
Chambers Development Co., a Pittsburgh-based trash firm that was growing quickly and looking to expand south, considered the county an ideal site. Land was relatively cheap. It had a rail line. It was close enough to the James River that one day trash might be delivered by barge, and most important, it wasn't far from Interstate 95, with its access to cities up and down the East Coast.
Company officials knew it would be a delicate task persuading a community to approve a landfill designed in large part to take out-of-state waste, Spires said. So the company enlisted Del. Alan A. Diamonstein (D-Newport News), who was known across the South as a fund-raiser and power broker, active in the national Democratic Party as well as chairman of the Virginia state party. Chambers hired him to handle legal matters, and introductions, in its new southern markets.
Diamonstein made another hire, Del. C. Hardaway Marks (D-Charles City), a 15-term member of the House of Delegates. The conservative Democrat and lawyer was the second most senior member of the House at the time.
C. Hill Carter Jr., then a Charles City County supervisor, said in a recent interview that at the time he wasn't sure whether he should trust Diamonstein or Chambers. So he turned to Marks.
"I may be a little out of date, but I like to know what I am dealing with, what kind of people they are," Carter said. "I find somebody who knows more about it than I do, and then I go to them. That is what I did with Hardaway."
Marks, Carter said, assured him that Diamonstein "was a good, reputable lawyer" and that "Chambers was a good company." With that, Marks said he put aside his doubts and endorsed the contract. The matter passed in a 2 to 1 vote.
Marks didn't tell Carter he was on Chambers's payroll.
Marks said there was nothing improper in not mentioning that connection. The landfill, he said, has benefited the county, bringing revenue that made possible a tax cut and paid off debt on three schools.
Carter's family, too, has benefited: His son, daughter and wife own 15 acres where Waste Management Inc., the company that since has purchased Chambers, is investing $15 million to build a barge port. Waste Management, based in Houston, says it rents the land from Carter's relatives for more than $100,000 a year. "Things have turned out very well for us," Carter said.
Charles City County's mega-fill opened in 1990 with a ribbon-cutting attended by then-Gov. L. Douglas Wilder (D) and 200 other state and local officials and business leaders. Within the next five years, similar deals would be signed with six more Virginia communities.
Diamonstein's work for Chambers declined shortly after the opening of one of those mega-fills, in Amelia County, when Chambers ran into financial trouble. He said he still handles occasional legal matters for Waste Management, which assumed Chambers's assets this year.
State law requires that legislators, whose elected positions are part-time jobs, disclose their financial interests. If they have a "personal interest" in a matter before the General Assembly, they can participate in the debate but not vote. A financial disclosure form filed in Richmond indicates that Diamonstein owns more than $50,000 in stock of a trash company that merged with Waste Management. Diamonstein would not say how much he was paid in all by Chambers, suggesting only that it was a "substantial" amount. But he did say he remains comfortable with his dual role as a legislator and trash industry lawyer.
"It is about relationships," Diamonstein said, adding that since being hired by the trash companies, he has abstained on trash-related votes in the legislature, which his voting record shows. "People tend to go to people with knowledge and expertise and who know how to get across points. ... As long as you handle it appropriately and it is disclosed, I don't see anything wrong with it."
The Legislative Record
The bridges the trash industry built in Charles City County carried it ultimately to Richmond.
In the last five years, at least 13 bills have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly that would have increased the state's role in managing landfill construction, limited the transportation of trash in Virginia or increased trash-industry regulation.
Again and again, the bills died or were defeated.
In 1994, for example, before three of the mega-fills had won state permits, Del. W. Tayloe Murphy Jr. (D-Westmoreland) proposed legislation that would have created a state planning process to, among other things, evaluate how much landfill capacity Virginia needs.
Absent such a review, local governments and private companies have had a free hand in building mega-fills, as long as they met required environmental standards. The result has been a huge overcapacity in Virginia that has attracted 3 million tons a year of out-of-state trash.
Murphy's bill stalled for a year and then was defeated in 1995.
Other trash-related bills that died would have required referendums in communities where large landfills are proposed, banned trash barges on state rivers and encouraged Congress to pass legislation allowing states to regulate the flow of out-of-state trash.
As with any legislation, there were a variety of reasons why those bills failed, legislators said. But Del. Harvey B. Morgan (R-Gloucester), who introduced several of them, said the industry's connections, clout and money made a real difference.
"The industry has a huge presence," Morgan said. "It is very difficult to go up against." The trash-related legislation the General Assembly did pass during the last five years illustrates that point.
For Northern Virginia, perhaps the most important trash-related legislation was a 1995 bill that protected the industry from competition from local governments. It required counties and cities to buy out a trash hauler's client base or give haulers five years' notice before starting a government-controlled collection service.
Many Virginia local governments, including Fairfax and Prince William counties, objected to the the bill because they wanted the option to expand government-sponsored trash collection as a means of drawing more trash and dumping fees to their landfills and incinerators, which have been struggling financially since the private mega-fills opened.
But the industry, which argued that the bill would protect small-business men who ran waste hauling companies, was persuasive, said Larry Land, director of policy development for the Virginia Association of Counties. The trash lobbyists signed up co-sponsors and suggested language for the bill, according to Waste Management lobbyist John W. Daniel.
"There was just something bigger than someone like myself could ever overcome," said Land, who testified against the bill. "At a certain point, I realized it was just going to go through."
Two bills already have been proposed for the 1999 legislative session that would try to restrict out-of-state waste, including a moratorium on landfill growth and a cap on the amount of trash existing landfills can take.
Murphy says he believes the momentum has finally built to take decisive action to enhance regulation of the industry.
"A lot of good legislation has failed over the years because the public interest, the collective interest of the citizens of the commonwealth, has been subordinated to a single, self-serving interest," Murphy said. "That is wrong. That is not why any of us are here. We were elected to represent the entire state."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company