Fairfax Stands to Lose Millions if Incinerator Loses Customers
By Michael D. Shear and Dan Eggen
Fairfax County's trash incinerator stands to lose at least $3.5 million a year because of a plan by District officials that would send the city's garbage elsewhere and a threat by a major private hauler to back out as well, the county said yesterday.
The losses could go as high as $10 million a year, officials said, unless Fairfax finds new sources of trash to replace the garbage it would lose from the District. Some of that trash would go to Prince William County's landfill, under the D.C. plan.
Yesterday, Fairfax officials lowered the dumping fees charged to trash haulers from $45 per ton to $36 per ton, an attempt to hold on to its current business and attract more.
Fairfax is caught in an intense competition for garbage, as Washington area governments struggle to bring in enough money to pay off bonds used to build expensive landfills and incinerators. In 1994, the U.S. Supreme Court said local governments could no longer require that trash collected in their jurisdictions be taken to their own dumps.
The potential incinerator crisis arose this week when county officials learned that D.C. officials have recommended granting a new hauling contract to Urban Service Systems Corp.
The company has proposed shipping the city's 200,000 tons of yearly residential garbage to Prince William County and to an undisclosed private landfill. The District has sent its trash to Fairfax for decades.
At the same time, Browning Ferris Industries, one of the county's three trash collectors, has threatened to stop dumping at the Fairfax incinerator unless fees are cut.
County officials briefed supervisors privately on Monday. Board Chairman Katherine K. Hanley (D) said the county needs to develop a better long-range plan to deal with the possibility of a constantly declining source of trash.
Hanley and other officials also expressed fear that Fairfax's fee cut could spark a competitive round of similar discounts by other jurisdictions, as each government reaches for its share of the garbage market.
"It's worrisome that all of a sudden you have localities in some sort of bidding war," Hanley said. "We are caught between court decisions and changes in the whole trash industry."
Until yesterday, Fairfax charged most haulers $45 per ton -- a charge called a "tipping fee" -- to dump trash into the incinerator, although officials said they had offered a special rate of $25 per ton to the District two years ago.
The District has been looking for a way to privatize the operation of two stations where garbage is collected before being shipped to Fairfax County's incinerator.
Urban Service Systems was the low bidder and the recommended choice for that business by the city's public works staff, said Linda Grant, a spokeswoman for the D.C. Department of Public Works. But Chief Management Officer Camille C. Barnett and the D.C. financial control board haven't yet approved the contract.
Dickie S. Carter, owner of Urban Service Systems, said that if his company is chosen, some city trash will go to Prince William, where he has a contract to dump in the county landfill.
Carter said that using the Fairfax incinerator would simply be too expensive and that the county was unwilling to lower its fees enough to stay in the game. "Fairfax certainly had an opportunity to be competitive," he said.
Snagging trash from Fairfax could be good news for Prince William, which has been struggling to stem red ink at its financially troubled landfill. The county could take in more than $3 million extra over the next year.
"From a financial perspective, it's good for us because we'll get some extra revenue," said Thomas J. Smith, Prince William's solid-waste chief. "From a regional perspective, it's probably not such a good thing. We've always tried to cooperate with Fairfax. It creates a tension that wasn't there before."
Under a two-year contract with Urban Service Systems signed in August last year, Prince William agreed to take up to 264,000 tons of trash per year at $19 a ton, which is half the rate it normally charges and is one of the lowest rates in the region. But so far, the company has brought in only about a third of that amount.
Prince William supervisors have been wrestling with the trash issue for well over a year, careening from one proposal to another in an attempt to fund $2.5 million in annual debt from a 1990 landfill expansion.
This month, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors abandoned a proposal that would have made the county's landfill the busiest dump in the Washington area, opting instead to consider a county-wide trash disposal fee of up to $70 per household. Under that plan, to be considered in September, the county would bar outside trash altogether and eliminate gate fees at the landfill.
Fairfax officials said they will try to find other ways to replace the trash that's lost, including increasing the number of tires and the amount of debris from construction sites they accept for burning at the incinerator. Under a contract with the operator of the incinerator, Fairfax would pay a $60-per-ton penalty if the amount of trash being burned falls below 930,000 tons a year.
"If we did nothing to substitute for the trash that's lost, the cost to the county is about $10 million," said Anthony H. Griffin, deputy county executive.
County officials said the 25 percent cut in the tipping fee was an effort to hold on to BFI.
"We've been communicating and talking with the county for six months about the need for them to lower their tipping fee," said Paul Gilbert, a spokesman for BFI, who said the company and county are now negotiating.
Griffin and other Fairfax officials said the county must look at a variety of long-term solutions, including the possibility of a fee on all homes and businesses. Montgomery County already uses such a fee, although Fairfax politicians stressed yesterday that they are far from proposing one.
"I don't think so," said Supervisor Michael R. Frey (R-Sully). "It's a new tax. Look at the political reality."
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