Trash talk leads to delay in new garbage contract

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES
  • Star Tribune
  • September 22, 2012 - 7:35 PM

A trash-talking Washington County Board tabled a controversial garbage contract last week after a brisk debate over county subsidies.

Commissioners came to the brink of approving a three-year contract with Resource Recovery Technologies (RRT), which has a solid waste processing plant in Newport, before backing away on grounds that they didn't know enough about potential consequences.

At issue was the $2.3 million "processing payment" that Washington County would pay each year under a new contract, which would begin in 2013. The payment, which some commissioners referred to as a subsidy, represents the cost of garbage processing at the Newport plant vs. the cheaper cost of disposal at out-of-county landfills. The plant supports about 100 jobs.

"When they're asking for a subsidy like this, I think we have every right to see their books," said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke. "I just have a hard time taking hard-earned tax dollars and subsidizing their profit."

Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek said government shouldn't provide subsidies to private businesses. He said he opposed the proposed contract for that reason but also wondered why the county couldn't inspect RRT's finances.

"We're just supposed to trust them because they're nice people?" he asked.

The county has no right to look at RRT's books, said George Kuprian, who advises the board on legal matters and oversees the civil division of the county attorney's office. "Just so the public knows, RRT is a private corporation. We can't have their books," he said.

Washington County has contracted with RRT for years to sort and haul garbage for use as electricity-generating fuel in two Xcel Energy plants. The processed garbage, RRT said, eliminates 90 percent of the volume that otherwise would be dumped into landfills. RRT also sorts metals from garbage for recycling and removes hazardous materials, such as propane tanks and lead products.

The proposed joint contract includes Ramsey County, which would pay $6.1 million in subsidies over the three-year period. Contract terms would allow Washington County to consider buying the Newport plant at the end of that period.

Commissioner Lisa Weik expressed concern with the latter, citing state environmental laws and the abundance of water in, and surrounding, Washington County. State law requires that the county produce and manage a solid waste master plan.

"The risk is, if unprocessed wastes goes to landfills, it could poison the drinking water," she said.

Dennis Hegberg, the board chair, said he favored the contract because technology could change in three years.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel said he wanted to know more about potential consequences of a vote either for or against the contract. Of special concern, he said, was the fate of the RRT plant and the Newport business community if Washington County voted down the contract proposal.

Commissioners voted 5-0 to table the decision for a week.

Kevin Giles • 651-925-5037 Twitter: @stribgiles

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