Taking in the Trash
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  • The loss of trash incinerator customers could cost Fairfax millions.
  • St. Mary's County sends its trash to Virginia.
  •   Montgomery Burns Only Its Own Trash

    About This Series

    Much of the trash from these trucks lined up in the South Bronx is destined for Virginia. (By Helayne Seidman – For The Washington Post)

    Booming Business in Va.
    Thursday: Nearly 200 trucks line up in the Bronx each morning to carry every piece of trash picked up there to Virginia landfills. The ritual shows how big a business trash has become in Virginia.

    Friday: Incinerators in Fairfax and Alexandria face a revenue crunch as giant landfills draw away trash and disposal fees. As a result, the local incinerators are taking in more industrial waste.

    Saturday: To establish itself in Virginia, the trash industry built a network of politicians and consultants to help win sites for landfills and legislation to safeguard its business.

    By Eric Lipton
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, November 13, 1998; Page A30

    Montgomery County has escaped many of the financial struggles pressuring Northern Virginia's incinerators and has insulated itself from having to take in out-of-state waste and industrial loads.

    The county banned burning anything in its Dickerson incinerator except for trash collected in Montgomery. It negotiated more favorable terms in its contract with the incinerator operator and it built a smaller facility.

    But those advantages come at a price for Montgomery residents, who pay an additional fee for trash disposal that their Fairfax and Alexandria counterparts do not.

    Montgomery benefited from coming late to the incinerator business. Its incinerator did not open until 1995, seven years after the plant in Alexandria, long enough for officials to assess their neighbors' experiences.

    "We were able to look at what was happening around the country, and we realized the trash market was volatile," said Montgomery County Council President Isiah Leggett, who has served on the council for 12 years. "In hindsight, our decision compared to Fairfax's was a little more reasonable."

    Even before construction began on the $270 million plant, Montgomery officials noticed that trash collected in the county had started to head out of state to cheaper landfills. The county did not want to sign a contract that obligated it to deliver a fixed amount of waste to the plant – and put it in the position of having to hunt down trash. The County Council also passed a resolution in 1992 stating the plant "must be used only for solid waste generated in the county," effectively banning imported trash.

    By eliminating minimum loads and building a smaller plant – Dickerson has an 1,800-ton-a-day capacity, 40 percent less than Fairfax's – Montgomery also avoided pitting its interest in recycling against pressure to gather enough garbage to keep its plant healthy.

    "We don't want to even appear that we have to feed the incinerator at the expense of recycling," said Jim Reynolds, a Montgomery County solid waste engineer.

    But all of those comforts carry a high cost.

    It costs $45 million a year to run the plant. The electricity generated as part of the trash burning helps cover some of the plant's costs. But to further finance those operations, pay down debt on the plant and cover other waste-related costs, the county includes a user fee that averages $205 a year as part of each household's tax bill. That fee is separate from any bill a homeowner pays for trash pickup by a private hauler or the county. Fairfax, Alexandria and Arlington currently have no similar user fee.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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