Politics & Government

April 2, 2013

Garbage war intensifies in SC

National waste corporations are pushing legislation that could give them a greater share of the trash business in South Carolina. Local governments warn change would mean higher garbage rates.

Nobody thinks much about garbage, as long as someone else hauls it away for a reasonable price.

But the S.C. Association of Counties says homeowners will have plenty to worry about if a well-financed campaign by waste companies is successful at the State House this year.

National waste corporations are pushing legislation that could give them a greater share of the trash business in South Carolina that they now share with county governments.

They already operate about half the garbage landfills in South Carolina, but one day will own a monopoly if the Legislature sides with waste giants such as Republic Services and Waste Management, according to the counties association.

And if the waste industry takes control of more landfills and waste hauling services, the average citizen will pay higher prices to dispose of waste, county officials say. Lexington, Richland, Aiken, Spartanburg, Chester, Beaufort and Horry counties are among those with concerns.

Counties got into the garbage business when private companies weren’t around, and in some cases managed to keep disposal prices down.

The bill “cripples public solid waste programs, which will ultimately lead to their forced takeover by large out-of-state waste companies,” the counties association said in a legislative alert to its members last week. “It is important for you to understand and communicate the facts to the senators.”

Last week’s alert urges county leaders to fight the bill as well as efforts to bring it up for a special vote when the Senate returns for work on April 9. A legislative committee last month agreed to send the bill to the Senate floor, but because of questions about it, the measure now needs special approval to bring it up for a vote.

The legislation, which also came up last year, would make it illegal for any county to require any waste generated in the county to be sent to the county landfill or waste transfer station. Many counties have laws controlling the flow of waste that would be affected, local government officials say. Some depend on revenues from those ordinances to pay for waste disposal operations.

Garbage industry boosters say arguments that they want to corner the market and raise rates are miles off base.

“That particular line is extreme hyperbole,” said Jason Puhlasky, a lobbyist who represents Republic Services and a national waste industry association.

Puhlasky said waste corporations don’t want to take over the trash business in South Carolina, but companies should have a fair chance to compete for business. And competition could lower prices, bill supporters said.

If the law passes, county leaders say public landfills will be harder to operate because the bill hurts their ability to use landfill revenues for operations or to pay off debt to improve the waste sites. That would make it easier for private companies to buy the landfills, bring in out-of-state waste and charge higher prices to customers, they say. One private entity already has made overtures to Horry County about acquiring its landfill and bringing in out-of-state waste, an issue that is a political sore spot for many South Carolina residents upset about taking other states’ garbage.

The legislation also could allow big waste companies to squeeze out local garbage haulers and set higher prices, according to the Association of Counties alert.

Waste Management Inc. and Republic Services, two of the country’s biggest garbage companies, are key boosters of the bill.

The two companies also pushed the legislation last year, spending more than $350,000 lobbying the Legislature in 2012, according to records filed with the State Ethics Commission. Waste Management and Republic paid more for lobbyists last year than most other companies, ranking in the top 15 in lobbyist payments, commission records show. Lobbying expenses are not available for this year.

The bill sailed through the House earlier this year and enjoys support from key lawmakers in the Senate, including Harvey Peeler, R-Cherokee. Peeler is a co-sponsor of the bill and chairs the committee that sent it to the Senate floor. Peeler is the brother of former Lt. Gov. Bob Peeler, who deals with counties as a community relations executive for Waste Management. Sen. Peeler said they have not discussed the bill.

Sen. Creighton Coleman, D-Fairfield, said the law is intended to chill ordinances like one adopted in Horry County several years ago. Coleman, a sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, noted that other counties are considering laws like Horry’s.

“What Horry County did in my opinion, there’s just no question, is wrong,” Coleman said, noting that he’s particularly upset because the Horry ordinance prevented a Marion County landfill owner from tapping Myrtle Beach’s lucrative garbage market. “What Horry County actually did was create a monopoly.”

Some counties, such as Horry, require all waste generated there to be buried at the public landfill at Conway west of Myrtle Beach. Others require contract trash haulers to take garbage to specific transfer stations or landfills.

Puhlasky noted that the bill has been amended to address many initial concerns, including a provision that will continue to allow counties to pay off landfill debt with landfill revenues. Counties association lawyer Wes Covington disputed that, saying the amendment doesn’t do what its supporters claim.

In addition to questions about service, environmentalists are worried about waste corporations taking a larger share of the trash business in South Carolina. Republic’s mega dump in Lee County, for instance, has appealed a federal court judgment ordering it to pay $2.3 million to nearby residents, who claim the landfill smells so bad it’s ruining their quality of life. Meanwhile, two private landfills in Richland County – one operated by Republic and the other by Waste Management – sit atop contaminated groundwater.

Bill Banning, who chairs Lexington County Council, said he’s worried the legislation will nullify his county’s garbage contracts in which local haulers truck garbage to a transfer station for eventual disposal – which will allow big profit-motivated companies to move in, monopolize service and possibly raise prices for trash pickup.

“Lexington County is not in business to make a profit, we are trying to provide a service,” he said. “All of these waste companies are answering to stockholders and board members. So there’s no question they are there to make money.”

Chester County supervisor Carlisle Roddey said he also worries that the legislation will allow a private waste company to open a new landfill that brings out-of-state waste to the Chester area between Columbia and Charlotte. A company affiliated with Republic Services already owns about 800 acres in Chester County, county tax records show.

“I don’t want outside waste brought in here,” Roddey said, but added that “These waste companies have a lot of influence.”

Shelley Robbins, who tracks the waste industry for the environmental group Upstate Forever, said Waste Management would benefit in Spartanburg County because it needs a new landfill to replace one it owns there. The county also has a landfill that would benefit Waste Management if it could gain control of the dump in the Wellford community, she said.

“It’s time for the counties to step up and fight,” she said.

This year’s debate is reminiscent of past fights in South Carolina. For years, the Legislature kept a nuclear waste dump and a hazardous waste dump open after heavy lobbying by the waste industry.

The nuclear waste dump near Barnwell closed to all but three states about five years ago when citizen pressure forced the Legislature to stop extending its life. The hazardous waste landfill at Lake Marion closed in the early 2000s after a court shut it down. Now, the state is being targeted by large companies as a place to dump more out-of-state garbage, in this case, household trash, statehouse observers say.

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