The smelly, greasy castaways stuffed in containers and put on the curb for collection is garbage to most of us. But to a handful of businesses it is gold.
So with the Broward County Commission taking the first tentative steps towards planning the future of waste disposal in the county, at stake is tens of millions of dollars annually.
“Waste is one of the biggest economic forces in Broward County. Nobody thinks of it as such,” said Ron Greenstein, executive director of the county’s Resource Recovery Board.
At the center of the debate is the Southwest Broward landfill, 588 acres east of U. S. 27 on Stirling Road that is not being fully used.
Some waste executives say they can offer cheaper rates if the landfill was reopened for greater use, offering competition to the disposal monopoly that Waste Management subsidiary Wheelabrator Technologies has held in Broward for more than 20 years.
But southwest Broward residents are vehemently opposed to any expanded use of the landfill.
“I will lay down in the street in front of the garbage trucks before I allow them to reopen that landfill,” vowed Pembroke Pines Commissioner Angelo Castillo.
Voices are being raised. Positions are hardening. In the middle are Broward County Commissioners who will decide the issue.
The commission has scheduled a workshop on Oct. 18 from 2-4 p.m. at the Broward Government Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale to discuss the future of waste disposal in the county.
On one side are a handful of city officials and garbage haulers who want to tap into Broward County’s $1 billion-plus waste stream. They say that developing a second landfill will lower prices by offering competition to Wheelabrator’s so-called Mount Trashmore in the north end of county along Florida’s Turnpike. Wheelabrator now has a monopoly on dumping in Broward.
On the other side are residents and politicians who represent them. They say that the traffic and smell of an expanded landfill will destroy the quality of life in Southwest Broward on the edge of the Everglades
“This is a classic NIMBY fight,” said Greenstein, using the abbreviation for the political term “Not In My Backyard”.
The outcome could affect residential and commercial garbage rates throughout the county because of the way trash bills are calculated.
A home owner or a business pays a single fee for two separate parts of garbage removal. A hauler picks up and delivers it to a disposal site. A disposal firm buries the waste in a landfill or burns it in an incinerator.
The current fight is about the second part – disposal. If the cost of disposal is lowered, every household and business will have a lower total garbage bill. And some say they can lower disposal costs by using the Southwest Regional Landfill to break Wheelabrator’s monopoly.
THE LANDFILL IS DECADES OLD
Opened in 1988 before large numbers of people lived in the area, the Southwest Regional Landfill was a busy facility that accepted household garbage from around the county. It was closed to household garbage three years later, but has continued to be used for dumping yard waste, construction and demolition debris, furniture, carpeting, paper, glass and plastic.
The disposal of household garbage was handed to Wheelabrator. The firm was given a 20-year, multi-billion dollar monopoly on disposing of household waste in much of Broward. Five cities opted out of the deal—Dania Beach, Hallandale, Pembroke Pines, Parkland and Pompano Beach.
The firm handles the garbage in two facilities: an incinerator just south of Interstate 595 on U. S. 441 and the North Broward landfill. The Resource Recovery Board, a group of city and county officials, was created to oversee the contract.
With the Wheelabrator contract expiring, Board Chairwoman Ilene Lieberman and other members last year tried to push through a no-bid, $1.5 billion long-term extension at lower rates. The county commission and cities balked.
Wheelabrator only got a 23-month extension of its monopoly through July 2013, allowing the county time to plan for the future.
Cash-strapped cities and private lobbyists representing businesses that want a cut of the millions generated by garbage are demanding a better deal be put in place when the latest Wheelabrator extension ends.
Other firms say they can dispose of garbage cheaper by using a combination of Wheelabrator facilities and sites in other counties. But they argue that prices would fall dramatically if they were allowed to use the Southwest Regional Landfill.
Residents of western Pembroke Pines and Southwest Ranches, however, say that opening up the landfill would put hundreds of garbage trucks and tractor trailers on the streets of their cities. The smell could blow into their neighborhoods and, as it rose in height would be unsightly. Runoff from toxic waste could leak into the Everglades, the source of our drinking water.
“This project would ruin the lifestyle and be a danger to thousands of our residents,” said Pembroke Pines Commissioner Iris Siple, who promised to help residents organize against the landfill.
Supporters of opening the landfill to household garbage say it is a $1 billion dollar-plus idle county asset that should be used to benefit residents by lowering garbage rates. They vow it won’t smell and will not be used until there are safeguards against leakage.
“Keeping it closed means one thing – a continued monopoly on waste disposal and higher rates for homeowners and businesses,” said one waste industry source who asked not to be named.
Miramar decided not to wait for the county to put together a new garbage plan. That city asked for bids to dispose of the 70,000 tons of garbage it generates annually. City Hall received a proposal from Wheelabrator that was $4.50 less than the firm’s offer to the county – a savings of $315,000-a-year.
Seeing the deal Miramar was offered, the 26 cities currently covered by the Wheelabrator contract are restive. There is talk about reducing the role of the Resource Recovery Board and letting each city negotiate its own disposal deal. County Commissioner John Rodstrom has said the board should be disbanded.
With such enormous sums of money up for grabs, lobbyists are in a feeding frenzy.
The most politically potent competitor to Wheelabrator is a joint venture between entrepreneur Ron Bergeron and Southern Waste Systems of Palm Beach County. Bergeron and SWS have a team of lobbyists including longtime Bergeron General Counsel Aleida “Ali” Waldman, former County Commissioner George Platt and Democratic insider Bernie Friedman. Bergeron and his sons — big campaign contributors to elected officials who will decide the issue — also are involved.
Wheelabrator is represented by long-time Broward Government Center fixtures Bill Laystrom and Dennis Mele, among others. They are frequent campaign contributors, too, along with Wheelabrator and its parent company, Waste Management.
It is against this backdrop that the county workshop on the future of waste disposal is being held.
Lieberman, who is widely viewed as favoring a new deal with Wheelabrator, tried to confine participation at the workshop to members and staff of the Resource Recovery Board favorable to her views like director Ron Greenstein.
“Ilene and Ron (Greenstein) want a deal with Wheelabrator preferably without bidding,” said County Mayor Suzanne Gunzburger.
Commissioner Barbara Sharief, whose district includes southwest Broward, insisted Miramar be included.
“They led the charge in getting a lower rate and I thought it would be helpful to have them there,” Sharief said.
Said Gunzberger, “This is all up in the air. Everything is on the table.”