Taking out the trash: solid waste explained

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

As a Shoreline City Council Member, Deputy Mayor Chris Eggen serves on regional committees, including the Municipal Solid Waste committee. He shares his personal perspective from his committee experience to explain how solid waste is handled in King County.

Description of the Municipal Solid Waste Advisory Committee (MSWAC)
By Chris Eggen

King County is responsible for disposal of garbage and recycling for cities in King County except Seattle and Milton. The cities are responsible for pickup of garbage and recycling and drop-off at the county’s transfer stations. Yard waste is done privately by the city’s hauler – most have contracts with Cedar Grove composting. Of course the King County government is also responsible for pickup and disposal of waste for all unincorporated areas of the county. Most cities contract with a commercial hauler, such as CleanScapes, for pickup and drop-off, but several cities operate their own fleets.

Both solid waste disposal (by King County) and solid waste pickup (by the cities) are operated as utilities. Being a utility means that the means of support is fee for service, not taxes, and that by state law the fees collected for the utility can only be used for the service provided by the utility, and cannot be diverted to general government use. In fact, in Shoreline and in most cities the contract hauler (in Shoreline it is CleanScapes) bills customers for services and pays the county directly for disposal, so the city never has possession of waste disposal fees.

Because the cities and the county work closely on waste disposal, they must have a way to resolve differences and address unanticipated problems. In 1988 when the current Interlocal agreement (ILA) was approved, which governs city and county responsibilities in waste disposal, there were a lot of complaints because the ILA was drafted without much input from the cities and the cities felt that their concerns and those of their citizens had not been adequately considered.  In 2004, the county changed their policies and started including rent for space in the landfill in the disposal fees they charged the cities, which resulted in more complaints.

In response, in 2004 the county and cities jointly established the MSWAC, which advises the King County Executive and Council on solid waste issues and on decisions affecting city residents and services. Each city that participates in the county’s regional solid waste system can appoint a representative to this committee, who can be either an elected official or a staff member. I (Chris Eggen) have been the Shoreline representative for 5 years and am currently the Vice Chair of MSWMAC. Some issues MSWMAC has addressed in the last 10 years are waste disposal fees, expansion of the Cedar Hills Landfill, planning for waste disposal after Cedar Hills is full, renovation of the solid waste transfer stations, updating of the Solid Waste Comprehensive Plan (and including more incentives and goals for recycling and yard waste), and updating the Inter-Local Agreement (ILA) that governs how cities and county work together in waste disposal. The advice of MSWMAC has resulted in significant changes in the county proposals in several of these issues.

Meetings of the MSWAC are open to the public. The MSWAC generally meets in the King Street Center in Seattle just West of the King Street Train Station and north of CenturyLink Field in Seattle, on the second Friday of the month, from 11:15 to 1:15.  If you want to attend, please check the website before showing up. You are welcome to contact me with any questions.

I will spend a little time discussing two of the issues the MSWAC has addressed to give some perspective on the issues handling solid waste and how they have been handled in King County.

Cedar Hills landfill
Photo courtesy King County
In its early years MSWAC spent a lot of time on planning for the future of King County Solid Waste Disposal. They knew that there were several reasons for this emphasis. First, the county’s only landfill (at Cedar Hills) would will be full at some time in the fairly near future, and that getting approval of a new landfill in King County siting and opening a new landfill would be very difficult and expensive. Second, they also knew that the current system of transfer stations was 40 years old and had some structural problems. Furthermore, they knew that the current transfer stations had deficiencies in some capabilities that they thought they would be necessary in the future, such as supporting an increase in storage of waste, recycling, or compostable materials or and allowing for larger trucks and/or on-site waste compacting (which results in fewer trucks, but heavier loads on the roads transporting waste to disposal sites). So MSWMAC contracted out several studies, one looking at options for disposal after the closure of the Cedar Hills Landfill and then a set of studies addressing the needs and requirements for transfer stations.

The first study looked at one option for future disposal, conversion of waste to energy, which is common in Europe.  The report is on the King County Website and has the basic conclusion that no current technology for waste to energy offered compelling environmental benefits given the conditions in the state of Washington. Additionally, the King County Solid Waste Division developed an analysis of costs for three options for future disposal, (1) a new landfill, (2) waste to energy conversion, and (3) waste export to out-of-county landfills (as Seattle does). This information led MSWAC to recommend that the waste-export option be pursued. However, the decision was also made to continue to monitor factors bearing on costs and benefits of conversion of waste to energy to see if improved technology changed these conclusions.

Shoreline Transfer Station
Photo by Diane Hettrick

The second set of studies resulted in a plan to upgrade the King County Solid Waste Transfer Stations, beginning with the Shoreline Transfer Station, which was completed in 2007.

In 2009, the King County Solid Waste Division and MSWAC started the process of updating the ILA. The primary reason for update was the need to bond for transfer station upgrades beyond the term of the current ILA, through 2028. County financial policies are fairly conservative in that they would only allow bonding to that date. (I believe this is a wise policy because of cases in the past where utilities without guarantees of long-term use have run into significant financial difficulties when use declined and revenues to support bonds decreased.) However, if King County bonded only to 2028, the bond payments would have been high, and would have resulted in significant increase of disposal rates. Therefore the King County Solid Waste Division and MSWAC decided to try to come up with an extended ILA that binds the cities to send their solid waste to the King County Transfer Stations for a longer time and allows bonding beyond 2028.

First, there was an extended discussion between the cities and the county as to how long the extension should be. The advantage of a long extension is that the payments (and disposal rates) would be lower. The advantage of a shorter extension is a lower total cost, flexibility for the cities, and also that it was likely that it would clear the way for future investments that might be necessary, for instance, for waste to energy. In the end MSWAC recommended a relatively short extension of the ILA of 12 years (to 2040), which allowed twenty-year bonds to be issued.

Another early discussion was whether to simply extend the current ILA or revise and extend it. For two reasons, MSWAC decided on a revised ILA. The first reason was that an extended approval process would be necessary whether the ILA was revised or simply extended. The second was that a number of concerns with the current ILA had been identified that the cities thought were sufficiently important that revisions were necessary.

So MSWAC bravely moved ahead with what they thought would be a 6-12 month process of revision and approval. The process they used was first to establish a group of volunteers to identify issues with the current ILA and solutions and and bring this back to MSWAC for consideration.  Then a smaller team was assembled to actually to negotiate language in a new ILA.  However, these teams ran into a couple of new issues that took a lot of time and ultimately resulted in suspension of the initial negotiations. The biggest issue was liability. Because the “Superfund” Act could result in a huge award if there were a large release of contaminated water or air at Solid Waste Sites, and because the liability would extend to the cities even though they had no role in managing the sites, the cities insisted on insurance or a savings account funded out of Disposal Rates that would cover cities' shared liability. The county did not agree with including this in the ILA and the county and the ILA negotiating team were unable to come to terms.

At this point (Fall 2012) the Sound Cities Association became involved and brokered an agreement with King County Executive Dow Constantine to put together new negotiating teams and negotiate a solution that did include liability protection for the cities. With the Executive’s commitment, this process was successful and there is now a draft ILA that will be going to the cities for votes on agreement. 

Shoreline city staff have been very active in this process. Shoreline had a staff representative on the original MSWAC negotiating team, and the Shoreline City Manager was on the negotiating team that successfully finished the negotiations. Two notable improvements in the new ILA are (1) the liability protection and (2) a commitment to continue the MSWAC and to consider its recommendations on financial policies.

However, this process took much more time than originally estimated.  It turns out that King County must finalize a bond to pay for the replacement of the second transfer station (at Bow Lake) in late February, 2013. So the cities are rushing to examine the new ILA, and get votes on approval by that time.

In conclusion, the MSWAC committee represents cities advising the Solid Waste King County Solid Waste Division. As a member, Shoreline has worked hard to promote policies that support two goals, keeping disposal rates under control and promoting environmentally responsible policies. 

As the Shoreline representative, I will continue to support these two goals. One important issue that is coming up is how to continue to operate the utility in a financially responsible manner while further increasing recycling and composting. The challenge is that the system is mainly supported using a fee for disposal of garbage, which is reduced by recycling and composting.

Another issue to be addressed is a reexamination of waste export vs. conversion of waste to energy after the Cedar Hills Landfill is full. The environmental community is split on this issue. And if the county were to decide to build a waste to energy facility, the process of choosing a site and getting it approved would be very difficult.


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