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Trash clash: No end in sight

By Tandem Media staff • Apr 24, 2019 at 10:00 PM

There’s nothing neighborly about a dispute between two counties that got ugly last year, and millions of taxpayer dollars are on the line depending upon the outcome.

Erie County commissioners contend their counterparts in Huron County abruptly and without cause canceled a contract for hauling trash from a transfer station in Huron County to the Erie County Landfill.

The dispute could end up costing taxpayers in Huron County more than $1 million, according to Erie County, if it prevails in a lawsuit filed a year ago.

The five-year contract runs from Jan. 1, 2015, through Dec. 31, 2019. It stipulates that all garbage generated in Huron County be disposed at the Erie County Landfill. A mutually selected hauler took the trash from a transfer station at the old Huron County landfill in Willard, which is closed, to the landfill on Hoover Road in Milan Township/Erie County.

Huron County collected $54 per ton weighed at the transfer station and paid a fee, averaging about $26.50 per ton, to dump it at the Erie County Landfill.

Last spring, Huron County backed out of the deal, and, instead, hired a private contractor, Rumpke Waste Management, to haul the waste from the transfer station to Rumpke’s privately owned landfill in Richland County. Rumpke’s fee was $28 per ton.

While officials in both counties say they are unable to discuss the matter due to the pending litigation, previous statements provide insight as to why Huron County ended its agreement. The issues apparently involved money, service and compliance.

The decision left Erie County commissioners Pat Shenigo and Matt Old scratching their heads, trying to understand why Huron County would agree to pay more for the same service. They hoped to reach a resolution and met with their counterparts but failed to have a meeting of the minds with them about why Huron County had pulled out.

Huron County Commissioner Skip Wilde called the situation “very complicated,” but ultimately “we said we’d had enough.”

“They were getting a new hauler and we decided we were looking at other bids. It was an issue of non-performance. Things were (supposed) to be done and they didn’t happen,” Wilde said.

After Erie County “came back with a contract with a different hauler at a higher price,” Huron County commissioners Terry Boose said, “we went out and looked for a different contract because (it was cheaper) and things weren’t getting done.”

Erie County commissioners later authorized the lawsuit when the other side stopped negotiating. The lawsuit seeks to recoup the money lost from when Huron County stopped using the services through the expiration of the contract at the end of this year, about 16 months. Erie County estimates it’s owed about $1 million plus legal fees.

Erie County commissioners remain they were both baffled and blindsided by the decision.

Boose, however, said “we did have discussions with Erie County, letting them know we were unhappy with the service before” ending the agreement.

There are five county employees who work at the closed landfill in Huron County, monitoring the site as required by the EPA. The employees also loaded the trash that haulers dumped at the transfer station into the trailers used to haul it to the Erie County Landfill. 

There was some contention among the employees and the hauler prior to when Huron County quit the contract, including one time when a truck driver who showed up late was locked inside the transfer station. There also was some contention that the trailers being used had been damaged, but there was no formal notice or reasons given for the decision to stop honoring the contract with Erie County. 

When asked for comment, Huron County Prosecutor James Sitterly, whose office is representing the commissioners in the lawsuit, wouldn’t delve into any specifics.

“The board will neither respond nor comment on matters relative to pending litigation,” Sitterly wrote in response to an inquiry for information.

Huron County officials say they are happy with Rumpke’s service.

“I can’t comment on the lawsuit, but I can say Rumpke is doing a good job,” Wilde said, adding he hasn’t heard any complaints about the arrangement.

In the process of trying to reach an agreement with the other side, Erie County officials said they realized there might be a better plan for everyone involved.

According to Erie County officials, if Huron County eliminated the transfer station and instead allowed haulers to take the trash directly to the nearest landfill, taxpayers could save up to $1 million a year, or more.

“Having haulers pick up trash from residences and businesses and then dump it at a transfer station so another hauler can come and pick it up, again, to haul it away, sometimes in the opposite direction, is a waste. It just doesn’t make sense,” Old said.

The services of a middleman in that circumstance plus the labor cost the county pays its employees to pick up the trash after it’s dumped at the transfer station adds up to more than $1.1 million annually. Other costs the county pays, such as EPA fees, could be absorbed, according to Erie County officials.

There’s nothing precluding Huron County from eliminating the transfer station, according to a review by an attorney Erie County hired who specializes in solid waste law.

Erie County officials would prefer to keep the current contract in place, and possibly revise and renew it. The revenue generated from the reduced landfill fee Erie County charges Huron County helped keep the county landfill in Milan solvent, Old said.

The Erie County contract also appears to be less expensive, even under the current methodology for trash hauling in Huron County, than the contract Huron County commissioners and Rumpke Waste Management agreed to after kiboshing the Erie County deal.

“Why would they want to pay more for this service?” Old asked. “It just doesn’t make sense. I wish they would just explain it.”

Shenigo went further. 

“There’s a huge cost savings to Huron County residents to simply eliminate the transfer station,” he said. “Our proposal to split the county by distance to the nearest landfill also saves the hauler mileage. A Willard hauler would drive about 20 minutes to Rumpke’s landfill and a Norwalk hauler the same distance to the Erie County landfill.” 

The way it’s done now, haulers drive in the opposite direction to the transfer station in the center of Huron County, dump the waste on the ground and then re-load it into the trailers to haul it back again to the landfill. 

“Just the trucking alone is around $700,000 each year that could be saved,” Shenigo said. 

Huron County officials, however, said the transfer station is a money-maker that helps pay for monitoring and maintaining the closed landfill.

Huron County has “flow control” to pay off the past debt, as allowed in the Ohio Revised Code, for closing the landfill, transfer station and recycling center in 1998.

“We closed the landfill in 1998 due to the cost of operating it, so we did business as the transfer station,” said Pete Welch, Huron County director of operations. “When you close the landfill, you have to monitor that thing for 30 years.”

The cost to maintain the landfill is $200,000 per year for nine more years. That pays for surface water monitoring, methane monitoring, leachate collection and treatment, erosion control, sediment basin maintenance, reseeding and other miscellaneous site maintenance.

With the court case pending, there haven’t been any negotiations between the two counties on a new contract. 

Huron County recently signed a five-year pact with Rumpke at the same rate — $28 per ton. The pact is for three years guaranteed, with a pair of one-year renewals.

Despite the stalemate, Old and Shenigo both said they want to negotiate for a new contract and move past this dispute. They’d prefer a settlement to the lawsuit that serves both counties and said cooperation and collaboration between the two counties, wherever possible, is still a top priority for them.

Welch said the county is making the correct decision. He said if county commissioners eliminate the transfer station the county would lose its ability to set and collect a tonnage rate for waste generated in Huron County.

“Rest assured we are operating in the best interest of our taxpayers,” Welch said. “Everybody wants this trash because there is value in trash. We control our own market.”

But the legal opinion from the attorney who specializes in solid waste law suggests Welch is incorrect about the county’s ability to continue setting the tonnage fee and collecting it if the transfer station is eliminated. The county could keep collecting fees and charge those back to whatever landfill it designates.

Welch responded to that opinion.

“Do we have the ability to do that? We don’t now,” Welch said. “We would have to go out and approve a new flow control. We are locked in now for five years.

“To change it now we would have to get 80 percent approval (from all of the entities involved in the flow control). It is normally 60 percent for approval. Solid waste is always a moving target.”

Without the transfer station, there would be less money in the county’s coffers to pay the costs needed for remaining complaint with the EPA. All of the haulers in Huron County would have to make their own deals with local landfills and Huron County would collect nothing, Welch said.

Even if the transfer station closed, the county still would have to collect and process recyclables because of the solid waste district plan. A third-party vendor would need to be paid to handle the recyclables.

Also, local waste haulers and residents could be held hostage by the local landfills, Welch said. Currently there are five disposal facilities within 30 miles of Huron County.

Rumpke’s gate rate at the company’s private Richland County facility is $65 per ton.

“In six months Rumpke could jack their rate up to $80,” he said. “By competitive bidding, we control our rates for our taxpayers for five more years. The county just signed a new three-year deal with Rumpke with two more option years.”

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