SC senators back big waste companies

sfretwell@thestate.comMarch 21, 2013 

National waste corporations are gaining ground in their push to win a larger share of the garbage market in South Carolina.

A Senate committee voted 9-4 Thursday for a bill that blocks counties from requiring local waste to be dumped in a county’s own local landfill. The decision is significant because some counties have adopted or are planning such laws to guarantee revenues for landfill operations.

But if the bill makes it through the full Senate, opponents say counties would have a harder time making money to operate landfills – and that could allow big national garbage corporations to move in, take control of the local garbage market and ultimately raise prices on consumers. Counties should have the right to manage their own waste, critics of the bill say.

The bill already has been approved by the House and needs only Senate approval before it would go to Gov. Nikki Haley’s desk.

About half of South Carolina’s garbage landfills are public, with private companies running the remainder of the disposal sites.

“We’ve been concerned about this the whole way through,” said Danny Knight, executive director of the Horry County Solid Waste Authority, which runs a public landfill. “We’re still concerned. We just don’t know where this is going.”

Lobbying by waste corporations has been intense since the bill surfaced last year. Garbage companies have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on teams of lobbyists since 2011. The National Solid Waste Management Association and national trash giants, such as Republic Services Inc. and Waste Management Inc., support the legislation.

Republic operates a landfill in lower Richland County as well as a towering mega dump in Lee County that takes tons of garbage from other states. Waste Management’s operations include the Screaming Eagle Road landfill in Northeast Richland. The S.C. Chamber of Commerce, the state’s most influential business group, also backs the legislation.

Jason Puhlasky, a lobbyist for the solid waste management industry, said supporters of the legislation only want fair competition. More competition means better prices, he said.

“It has a good statewide effect in that it doesn’t allow government to pass ordinances to create a government-mandated monopoly,” said Puhlasky, who also represents Republic Services.

Boosters of the legislation also say it will help a Marion County businessman by nullifying a restrictive garbage ordinance in neighboring Horry County. The Horry law, which sparked the legislation, requires that all waste generated in the county go to the public landfill in Conway. Marion County landfill operator William Clyburn said he lost 70 percent of his business when Horry County adopted its law and prevented him from getting waste from the lucrative Myrtle Beach-area market.

The Senate Medical Affairs committee’s action Thursday followed an amendment that was intended to mollify some concerns. The amendment is supposed to protect counties that are paying off bonds with landfill fees to operate waste sites. The amendment also says zoning is not affected.

A number of counties had not had time to read the amendment – and some remained worried after Thursday’s meeting.

“I don’t see any reason … that we cannot allow our counties a little bit of time to study the bill,” Sen. Ray Cleary, R-Georgetown said, arguing to hold off on a vote.

Senators raising their hands in favor of the bill Thursday included committee Chairman Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee; Shane Martin, R-Spartanburg; Tom Davis, R-Beaufort; and Danny Verdin, R-Laurens. Among those opposing the bill were Sens. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland; Wes Hayes, R-York; and Floyd Nicholson, D-Greenwood. Peeler, a co-sponsor of the Senate bill, is the brother of former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, an employee of Waste Management. But Harvey Peeler emphasized Thursday he has not discussed the legislation with his brother. He also noted that he had opposed his brother on another waste issue several years ago in the Upstate.

“The only time my brothers and I talk trash is on Sunday afternoon when we play touch football,” Sen. Peeler said. “I know who he works for.”

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland, said he was bothered by the committee’s action Thursday. He noted that South Carolina legislators often rail against federal law infringing on South Carolina’s rights, but in this case, the state is limiting counties’ ability to control garbage matters at home.

“We are arguing about nullification and the overreaching arm of the federal government, Obama care and everything else,” he said. “At the same time, that seems not to bother us when we overreach with local government. It’s not very consistent.”

Jackson said it’s clear to him the waste industry wants the bill to pass. He said lobbying for the bill is heavier this year than on any other piece of legislation he has dealt with.

“What concerns me is the influence big businesses sometimes have on this legislative process,” Jackson said. “I don’t want to ever give the impression we can be bought and sold.”

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