Sullied by sewer back-ups, Cherokee resident files suit against tribe

A member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians is suing the tribe over sewage overflows onto her property, which she says poses a health threat to her family.

Linda Lambert filed a suit against the tribe in May 2011 over alleged sewage spills from a nearby manhole and sewer pipes. In her complaint against the tribe, Lambert lists 17 specific days that she says sewage overflowed onto her property and into Adam’s Creek during the past two years.

The tribe, however, is asserting that the number of actual sewage overflows is much less. The tribe also contends the overflows were promptly dealt with.

In court documents, Lambert states that raw sewage from the tribe’s sewer treatment plant is seeping onto her land and into nearby Adam’s Creek. Such overflows forced her family to move elsewhere and prevented her from being able to fully enjoy her property, including fishing.

Lambert is seeking $60,000 in damages, including physical, mental and emotional stress. The damages are linked to claims of negligence, trespassing, nuisance, violation of her civil rights and the taking of her property without compensation.

“The fact that it’s overflowing is not in doubt,” said Mark Melrose, Lambert’s attorney with Melrose, Seago and Lay based in Sylva. “I know there are dozens of people who know about it.”

Melrose said they will know more information in the next couple of months as potential witnesses are interviewed.

In court documents, the Eastern Band states that on at least one occasion sewage has leaked into Adam’s Creek, the Oconaluftee River and onto Lambert’s land. However, the discharge was partially treated and posed no health hazard.

“There was an episode, yes,” said Chad Ray Donnahoo, an Asheville attorney hired by the ECBI for this suit. “All that was reported to the EPA.”

Donnahoo said that the tribe did its due diligence by testing any overflows to make sure the seepage was not hazardous and reporting any incidents to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The tribe is in the process of updating its dated sewage system and treatment plant. The last comprehensive upgrade was in 1997 when capacity of the plant was tripled — timed with the opening of Cherokee’s first casino and intended to handle the likely increase in volume. During the past 15 years, the casino has undergone two major expansions — including the recent $633-million enlargement. Adding additional capacity will be part of the coming upgrades, which are in the early planning stages.

The Eastern Band is questioning why Lambert waited until May 2011 to file a formal complaint.

Lambert went before tribal council a couple times before taking legal action, according to court documents.

“She has tried to seek a resolution politically,” Melrose said. “And, she didn’t get any relief.”

Tribal Council passed two resolutions — one in 2008 and another in 2010 — promising to remedy the overflow problems. However, the complaint against the tribe states that nothing has been done and sewage continues to leak onto Lambert’s land.

The tribe “negligently and intentionally” acted or did not act in a way that resulted in “the negligent and wrongful management, operation, maintenance and repair of the Tribe’s sewage collection and transmission system,” states the complaint.

The tribe is hoping to get the case dismissed on the grounds of sovereign immunity. Some government entities are immune against certain legal actions. However, if the entity obtains insurance to cover possible lawsuits, it waives its right to immunity.

“We are currently investigating with our insurance provider the coverage issues,” Donnahoo said.

Right now, it is unclear whether or not the Eastern Band’s insurance plan would cover such as case.

“Even if the tribe has the legal escape clause, (I’d hope) that they would do the right thing by tribal members,” Melrose said.


An aging system

Cherokee is required to make regular reports to the Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates the tribe’s wastewater discharges. The tribe is also supposed to report any overflows, but it failed to do so prior to November 2010, said Stacey Bouma, an environmental engineer with the agency.

Bouma added that it is not that uncommon: many plants do not realize that they must report overflows, whether they happened on land or in water. Many only report sewage leaks into waterways.

Since November 2010, the tribe has filed 23 reports with the EPA ranging from benign clogged lines to bona fide overflows. The majority are of little consequence.

The overflow reports include a couple of incidents of pipes being harmed during construction, which resulted in release of sewage.

After receiving complaints about overflows on the reservation, the EPA conducted an investigation and found that heavy rain was responsible for a number of overflows.

“The pipes couldn’t handle capacity when it rained,” Bouma said.

While rainwater is supposed to flow through gutters and storm drains, rain water is being funneled into the sewer system in some areas of Cherokee and overwhelming the lines.

“We have had a lot of problems with infiltration,” said Larry Blythe, vice chief for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. “That pushes capacity to the limit.”

This is a common problem in towns with older sewage systems — nearby Bryson City has been plagued by this for years.

Overflows as a result of rain flooding the sewer system are luckily diluted, since the sewage is mixed with rainfall or melting snow.

In addition to reporting any water contamination, the treatment plant is required to tell the EPA if anything is coming out of a manhole connected to the sewer system.

The investigation also identified a manhole near Adams Creek as “a problem area,” Bouma said.

When a pump malfunctions or a leak in a sewage line occurs, the tribe reports it to the EPA, Blythe said. Many of the pipes that carry raw and treated sewage to and from the plant are old, and the tribe is working to replace them, he said.

The Eastern Band is planning to upgrade its sewer system and wastewater treatment plant, replacing old equipment and increasing its capacity. Blythe said the tribe is still working through estimates of what exactly the improvements will consist and how much they would cost.

He declined to address any legal issue regarding the wastewater treatment plant.

The treatment plant was first built in 1984 and was could process 0.9 million gallons of sewage each day. In 1997, however, the plant was updated and its capacity more than tripled. It is now permitted to treat up to 3 million gallons each day.

Haywood pitches in to help towns deal with trash transport costs

Haywood County has offered a helping hand as towns grapple with how to cover the extra cost of hauling resident’s trash to the White Oak Landfill.

Starting in July, towns will have to drive trash out to the White Oak landfill near the Tennessee border. Currently, the towns transport their garbage to a transfer station in Clyde, a convenient mid-way point, and the county takes it the rest of the way to landfill. But, the county has decided to shut down the station to save money.

Rather than leaving towns in the lurch, the county will share some of the savings it realizes with the towns to help offset a portion of the extra cost they would otherwise incur.

“We want to try to minimize any negative impact,” said Mark Swanger, chair of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners. “We knew that it would likely create additional costs.”

The money will come out off the $800,000 to $900,000 in savings the county will realize after it closes the transfer station.

“There will be sufficient savings to help the municipalities,” Swanger said. “I think they are very amenable to it.”

It is unknown how much the county will chip in.

“Any amount that would reduce our costs would help,” said Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway.

The extra driving distance to the landfill will mean more gas and more hours for town trash trucks. Towns could also be forced to buy additional trucks and hire more garbage men as a result.

Realizing the additional burden it would place on towns, the county held off on closing the transfer station until summer to align with the new budget year. The county has been working through the issue with towns for more than a year.

“The cooperation between the county and towns is really important,” said David Francis, chair of the county’s solid waste committee. “We knew that it was going to be a change in the way they operate.”

The county wanted to avoid changing “all the sudden” and give towns a chance to figure how they will handle the change, he said.

The county realizes that town residents are also county residents, Francis said, and wanted to ease the burden on towns and hopefully avoid a situation where the towns would need to pass the added cost onto their residents.

The county’s scales at the transfer station have helped show towns that their garbage trucks were often not filled to capacity when dropping trash, Francis said. If the trucks carried heavier loads, they could take fewer trips to the landfill and possibly avoid the cost of new truck.

The towns are currently tabulating how much each option would cost them and must present their estimates to the county by Jan. 15. The county will decide how much it will give to the towns in May as it constructs its budget.

Going the distance: Hauling costs rise to reach Haywood’s far-flung landfill

Town residents in Haywood County will almost certainly see the cost of their garbage service go up this year when the county shuts down its central trash dump.

Starting in July, towns will have to haul their residents’ trash all the way out to the White Oak landfill, an added burden with no easy solution. The extra distance will mean more gas and more hours on the road for town trash trucks. Towns also could be forced to buy additional trucks and hire more garbage men as a result.

Towns in Haywood County will focus this month on how to deal with the closure of the county’s trash transfer station. The station serves as a mid-way drop-off site in Clyde where garbage trucks can ditch their loads. The county then piles that trash into a tractor-trailer and drives it the rest of the way to the landfill, a 30-minute one-way haul to White Oak near the Tennessee state line.

The county is closing the transfer station as a cost saving measure, forcing towns to pick up the trek to White Oak.  The change also applies to commercial garbage haulers and industries with large trash volumes. County residents, however, can continue to use one of the many convenience stations located throughout the county and will not have to haul their trash to White Oak.

Most towns are still analyzing the potential costs of their various options.

“We haven’t decided anything yet,” said Daryl Hannah, Waynesville’s Street Supervisor.

Hannah expects the town to make a decision in the next month, however.


Waynesville’s recycling dreams

Waynesville officials are hoping on recycling will reduce the amount of trash it has to haul to White Oak.

“Recycling will definitely help,” Hannah said. “It will not only help us but will help the landfill as well.”

More recycling means less trash that town trucks must haul to the landfill — which could partially offset the cost of additional trash trucks and garbage men while extending the life of the landfill.

About 60 percent of households in Waynesville recycle but only 5 percent of the garbage generated by the town is recycled.

While any increase in recycling will help, the town would need to reuse about half of its waste to negate the increased cost and workload of running its trash out to White Oak.

“I’m not sure we could recycle that much,” Galloway said.

One rationale for the low numbers — despite curbside recycling in town — is that people don’t know what is recyclable. What can be recycled by the county seemed to constantly change for a few years.

“Some people just got discouraged and quit all together,” Galloway said.

Other people simply did not want to buy the required blue-colored bags, which distinguish recyclables from refuse. Galloway said that Waynesville residents can also use clear bags for their recycled materials — as long as collectors can tell the difference between garbage and recyclables.

The town made an appeal to residents to ratchet up their recycling in the latest town newsletter but do not have a specific recycling campaign planned at this time.

“I just don’t know right now what more we can do (beyond public education efforts),” Galloway said.

The town is continuing to look at how other municipalities have successfully increased their recycling. Waynesville officials have talked to recycling companies, which would collect and promote recycling in town, and studied places that have upped their recycling numbers by charging residents a small fee.

It seems counterintuitive, but people will start recycling or increase their loads if they are automatically charged for the service, Galloway said, adding that he would rather not increase residents’ detritus fee.

Waynesville isn’t ruling out anything yet. It could end up being cheaper to haul town trash to a private landfill in Buncombe County. Or, Waynesville, Canton and Clyde have discussed operating their own transfer station, sharing the cost among themselves and private haulers rather than each making the long haul to White Oak individually.

But Galloway thinks running their own transfer station would likely be more trouble than its worth.

The Town of Waynesville will review recommendations on how it should handle its refuse at one of its town board meetings this month.

Although no town officials knew how much that would cost overall, Galloway said new garbage trucks cost about $180,000 a piece.

And, unless the landfill is upgraded, the towns will also be forking out a lot more truck repairs and maintenance. Currently, garbage trucks must navigate through piles of trash to dump their loads at the landfill. When a mild rain or snow makes the way impassable, trucks must be towed in and out of the landfill by bulldozers, which can damage the trucks.


Canton’s long haul

The Town of Canton is grappling with whether to privatize its town garbage service, outsourcing the town trash department to a private company. Town officials are currently analyzing their options, said Town Manager Al Matthews.

Canton is in a particular tough position because it is the farthest from the landfill — with an additional 40 miles round-trip — about an hour of time — added the journey of each trash truck.

The town currently takes at least three trips to the transfer station each day. That’s an extra three hours a day. The existing trash trucks and crews can’t fit those extra hours into their existing workweek and still make all 1,583 trash stops in town.

“We have some ideas what it will cost,” Matthews said.

On average, other towns pay $10 to $11 per stop, he said.

At those rates, Canton would have to shell out more than $180,000 a year for trash collection. The town’s trash budget is currently $185,000 a year. While privatizing trash pick-up wouldn’t necessarily save the town any money, it may avoid what will otherwise be an increase in costs when the town has to start hauling to White Oak.

Outsourcing garbage collection would require a one-time fee of about $125,000 to outfit each house in town with a standardized $80 garbage can.


Maggie Valley in the clear

Maggie Valley is the only town that does not have to worry about the transfer station closing thanks to the town’s geographic proximity to White Oak.

“It’s not much difference for us,” said Mike Mehaffey, Maggie Valley’s director of public works. “It’s not much farther to go to the landfill.”

The town contracts with Consolidated Waste Service to haul its trash and had already factored in the possibility that it might need to take the refuse a few extra miles. So, the flat fee rate Maggie Valley pays Consolidated Waste Service will remain the same — $7,529.05 per month.

The considerably smaller town of Clyde also contracts out its trash collection, but the change in dumping location could increase the contractor’s asking price. Compared to Maggie Valley, Clyde is considerably farther away from White Oak.

Prior to the county-level procedure change, Hanson Waste simply drove down the street to the county transfer station.

Town Administrator Joy Garland said Clyde officials are in the process of tabulating how much more the extra miles will cost and whether the town should put the job out for bid.

Clyde currently pays Hanson Waste $2,850 a month to dispose of its trash, Garland said. The number was based on an estimated 505 stops.


Why the trash talk?

Haywood County officials hope to save $800,000 a year by shutting down the county’s trash transfer station, a move that is two years in the making and will go into effect this July.

In addition to annual operating costs, the county would have faced a $1.8 million expense to replace the rusted and broken bailer, which compacts trash to fit as much as possible in a landfill-bound tractor-trailer.

The county commissioners argued that the transfer station only benefits those who have town trash pick-up or pay a private hauler. However, towns said that the closure creates a quandary for them and their residents. Town residents will still have to subsidize their trash disposal while county residents will not. Currently, both groups play $92 a year to use the landfill.

County residents who do not have trash pick up can drop their trash at one of 10 convenience centers, and the county hauls it the remainder of the way to White Oak. The county will continue to operate the centers at a cost of $680,000.

Renegade houseboat meets its demise

A houseboat on Fontana Lake was dismantled and hauled off this month after the owner repeatedly failed to dispose of waste properly.

For more than a year the houseboat owner dodged rules against straight piping sewage into the lake. The owner also skirted rules that limit how long a houseboat can sit in the same spot on the lake if it isn’t in a harbor.

The houseboat owner was sent warning letters from the Swain County Health Department, which polices sewage disposal by houseboats on the lake. After certified letters went unreturned, a notice was posted on the front door of the owner’s house, said Linda White, director of the Swain County Health Department.

After still no response, the county attorney sent him a final warning telling him to remove his houseboat or face fines and even criminal charges for violating the county’s houseboat waste disposal ordinance.

The houseboat owner finally took notice — but instead of complying he tootled down the lake to the Graham County side, out of Swain’s jurisdiction.

Graham County also has an ordinance that prevents houseboats from dumping their sewage into the lake, but after six months of getting nowhere, Swain authorities were happy to let someone else try. Graham didn’t have much luck either, however.

Meanwhile, the houseboat owner was loitering too long in one spot. Houseboats have to either be tied up in a harbor or on the move —  moving at least one nautical mile every two weeks. Tennessee Valley Authority flags boats that set up camp in one place on the open lake for too long. House boats outside a harbor aren’t supposed to be left unattended longer than 24 hours, either.

There are five private boat docks on the lake that will harbor houseboats in coves that branch off the main stem of the lake. Most of the 500 houseboats on the lake never budge from the boat dock where they lease harbor space. The owners use their houseboats as a home base on the water but use motorboats or pontoons to venture from the shoreline and play on the open lake.

The dock owners also handle houseboat sewage, using a fleet of pump boats to collect sewage from all the houseboats in their harbors and haul it to shore.

But this renegade houseboat owner simply idled around the lake.

“He refused to go to a harbor,” said David Monteith, head of the Fontana Lake Users Association and a Swain County commissioner. “He did not want to get into compliance and get into a harbor and sign a pumping contract.”

Ultimately, however, the lake itself dealt the houseboat a fatal blow. During a storm, it broke lose of its moorings and capsized.

“It was a navigation hazard,” said Darrell Cuthbertson with the Tennessee Valley Authority, which manages the lake. “Only two feet of one corner was sticking up from the water, and we were afraid someone was going to hit it so we drug it over to the bank.”

The closest shoreline happened to be National Park Service property. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park wasn’t exactly fond of a soggy, capsized houseboat on its lakeshore and asked the owner to claim his houseboat.

When he didn’t meet the deadline, Tennessee Valley Authority dismantled it and hauled off the scraps, Cuthbertson said.


Lake sewage rules

A local push to clean up Lake Fontana was set in motion about 10 years ago following a revelation that the bacteria level in the water was unsafe — five times above accepted fecal coliform counts.

All that sewage, not only from toilets but also “gray water” from showers and sinks, was polluting the lake.

Those who used the lake banded together under the Fontana Lake Users Association to address the issue. The group lobbied officials in Swain and Graham counties to pass ordinances regulating houseboat waste and secured more than $700,000 in grants to get a fleet of pump boats up and running.

Houseboats now collect their own sewage in tanks and have it pumped out and hauled ashore periodically by boat dock owners.

Houseboat owners must display a sticker on the outside of their boat showing they are in compliance with the law. To get a sticker, they have to provide a copy of their pumping contract with a boat dock owner.

Interestingly, houseboat owners go through the county property tax office to get their stickers since houseboat owners are supposed to pay property taxes on their boats anyway.

The sewage ordinance actually killed two birds with one stone: it cleaned up the lake and dramatically increased the number of houseboat owners paying taxes on their boats — much like your license plate renewal is tied to automobile inspection.

Monteith hopes this will be a lesson to any houseboat owner thinking of skirting the waste disposal laws on the lake.

“To me, it goes to show this is what could happen if you fail to get in compliance with this ordinance in Swain and Graham County. This is what could happen to anybody’s houseboat, it could be dismantled,” Monteith said.

Haywood tries new approach in dealing with unhealthy garbage

After enduring months of dogged opposition over a county rule that would protect residents from nasty garbage piles on their neighbor’s property, Haywood County leaders are trying a different tack.

The county has dropped the idea of a public health rule governed by the health department and instead will draft a health ordinance. An ordinance will allow more flexibility, while a rule under the auspice of the health department had to conform with state mandates.

Haywood County Commissioner Mark Swanger recommended the new approach, which garnered unanimous support from the rest of the commissioners.

Swanger said some sort of mechanism is necessary to protect people from unhealthy situations created by neighbors.

“It has nothing to do with aesthetics or that you just have a messy yard. It would have to be a demonstrated health risk,” said Swanger.

The scrapped health rule chiefly dealt with garbage that might attract disease-carrying rodents and mosquitoes, but would have also applied to an abandoned swimming pool that had become a health risk or a chemical spill, for example.

While some opposed the spirit of the ordinance as meddling in the private property arena, others merely took issue with over-reaching enforcement and over-the-top punishment.

The rule allowed the health director to come onto private property without permission and offenders could have been charged with a class I misdemeanor.

Wording was changed to require the health director to first get a search warrant except in the case of an imminent hazard. But little could be done about the class I misdemeanor for violations, as that was the punishment mandated by the state. If written as an ordinance by the county, however, it could carry a lesser charge of a class III misdemeanor, Swanger said.

A small task force has been appointed to provide input on writing the ordinance, including two critics of the health rule in its original form.

One of those, Terry Ramey, said he hopes the new approach will help “bring people back together instead of being mad at each other.”

Ramey said too much bad blood exists between the critics of the rule and members of the health board for a compromise to be reached.

“It had gotten to a head-butting deal,” Ramey said. “It just got out of hand.”

Ramey said he is not against an ordinance in principle.

“We need something,” Ramey said. “Let’s say somebody had trash piled up and it was rotten and it had insects and stuff in it. We want something in place for situations like that. Even the people against it don’t want a really bad health hazard.”

But Ramey said the original rule left too much room for broad interpretation.

Haywood commissioners take heat for planned overhaul of trash and recycling

Haywood County commissioners are fighting opposition on all fronts after a county task force recently recommended major changes to trash and recycling operations.

The central debate is revolving around a proposal that would privatize a portion of the county’s trash operations, put 15 full-time county employees out of work, and shut down a transfer station in Clyde where haulers now deliver their loads.

“The same folks that say reduce the costs are here saying save the jobs,” said Commissioner Kirk Kirkpatrick at a county meeting Monday, which saw everyone from private trash haulers to county employees to regular citizens railing against commissioners.

Meanwhile, town officials in Waynesville, Clyde and Canton are none too happy about greater expenses being passed down to them as the county offloads some of its current responsibilities.

Haywood County’s budget as proposed calls for the county to outsource operations of its 10 convenience centers, where residents without curbside trash pickup dump their household garbage and recyclables.

The county also plans to lay off employees who now sort all the county’s recyclables manually. Alternatively, recyclables would be hauled away to be separated much more quickly by machine.

If both measures are passed, the county would save $431,000. However, the household solid waste fee would still increase by $22 to make debt payments on an expansion of the White Oak landfill. Without the cost saving measures, those fees would jump up by $40 per household this year. The fee is currently $70.

Most controversial of all, though, is the suggestion not yet incorporated into this year’s budget: closing the county’s transfer station in Clyde.

For now, the transfer station offers town trash trucks and private haulers a one-stop shop. It’s where they drop off recyclables and where they offload trash, which the county then delivers the rest of the way to the White Oak landfill.

If the proposed changes are passed, all haulers would be forced to make the long trek out to the landfill, located off exit 15 on Interstate 40.

Though shutting down the transfer station could save the county $940,000 annually, opponents say the costs would still be passed down to customers in one form or another.

“It’s more expensive on the private haulers, it’s more expensive on the towns,” said Paul White, a hauler from Maggie Valley, who also criticized the county for excluding the towns and private sector from its solid waste committee, which came up with the recommendations.

“It’s going to affect everybody in this room, not just me,” said Roger Henson, a private hauler who handles trash pick-up for the Town of Clyde. “Reconsider this, because I’m telling you, it’s going to hurt.”

Dan Best, an employee on the recycling pick line facing a layoff in less than two months, argued the commissioners are sending money away from Haywood.

“Keep it in-house, keep it in Haywood County, and make Haywood County a viable place,” said Best.

The towns

speak up

Joy Garland, town administrator for Clyde, was caught completely off-guard by the county’s proposal.

“We just learned about this. It kind of comes as a little late in the budget year,” said Garland. “We’re just trying to put our numbers together at this point ... My board is not in favor of it, I can tell you that.”

Henson said if the transfer station in Clyde closes, his costs would skyrocket by 66 percent from having to make the long haul out to White Oak multiple times a day. The increase would be passed on to his main client, the Town of Clyde.

“We knew it would impact us, but had no idea 66 percent,” said Garland, who anticipates town residents seeing their household fees shoot up from $9 to about $15 per month.

Over in Canton, closing the transfer station would cost the town about $115,000 a year in new equipment. That translates to monthly fees jumping from $8 up to $13 per household.

Al Matthews, Canton’s town manager, said the town would seriously consider privatizing its own operations.

“We could probably contract for service cheaper than we could pass that cost on to our customers,” said Matthews.

Waynesville residents might see their household rate rise from $5.50 per month to $8 a month if the county shuts down its transfer station.

Waynesville Town Manager Lee Galloway said the town would need to acquire two new rear-loading garbage trucks and hire a new employee to shuttle trucks between curbside collection crews and the larger trucks bound for the White Oak landfill.

There also would be more wear and tear on the trucks, requiring more diesel fuel and more service, as well as an additional set of tires annually, Galloway said.

Driving to White Oak instead of the transfer station in Clyde would also add an extra 27,000 miles annually to each truck in Waynesville. The total cost increase annually for the Town of Waynesville would come out to $199,000.

Galloway said he couldn’t speak for his town board, but that he would prefer to see the county fee set higher to keep the transfer station open.

The Town of Maggie Valley, which is much closer to White Oak than its neighbors, is unfazed by the county’s proposal. Adding four miles to their private contractor’s journey each way will not result in a price hike.

“They might have to leave town a little bit earlier than if they were taking it to the transfer station,” said Tim Barth, Maggie’s town manager. “That would be the only difference.”

Maggie Valley residents can expect their household fees to remain steady at $8.24 per month.

Barth said the town decided to get out of the trash business in 2003 after growing tired of maintaining and replacing expensive equipment — not unlike the county’s current quandary.

At Monday’s meeting, Commissioner Skeeter Curtis reiterated that the proposal is far from a done deal, while Commissioner Mark Swanger said shutting down the transfer station would streamline the process and prevent trash from unnecessarily being handled twice.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Kevin Ensley expressed confidence that the private sector would somehow pull through.

“I believe the entrepreneurs that haul the trash now will find a way to make money,” said Ensley. “I really do.”

However, Best said if the county invested adequately in the department, solid waste director Steven King could run it more successfully.

“If he had the backing of the commissioners, they can make this place go,” said Best.

Tough times lead to tough choices

For its entire existence, this country’s leaders have wrestled with the slippery issue of power and how much is too much for government at all levels. In times like these, as tax revenues disappear while the free market struggles, the issue takes on even more significance.

So when Haywood officials said last week that their decision to privatize trash and recycling services was more about fiscal reality than philosophy of government, there was no reason to doubt them. Still, this move toward getting out of the trash business presents an interesting opportunity for a discussion about local government and its responsibilities.

Haywood commissioners made some waves last week when they voted to stop providing a service that was costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. Instead of operating their own convenience centers and a “pick” line at the county-owned recycling center, commissioners voted to privatize many solid waste services. The decision will save nearly $500,000 per year. Another switch that’s liable to happen within a year — the closing of the transfer station in Clyde — could save an additional million dollars a year. A task force studying the cost of these services also says hiring a firm to manage the entire landfill would provide large cost savings.

All that sounds great from a budgetary perspective, and one would think there would be widespread praise for the savings. Unfortunately for the Haywood commissioners, that’s not what happened. As always, people’s lives are in the crosshairs when a decision of this magnitude ripples through the system.

More than 15 county employees will lose their jobs as the county shuts down a line of service that has been expanding for the last couple of decades. Leaders of the municipalities are upset and most private trash haulers don’t seem happy.

So what’s next for Haywood and other counties struggling with declining tax revenues while the cost of everything else — gas, health care, wages, to name a few — continues to rise? Perhaps the sheriff’s department or the health department will go private. Government at all levels is better off by privatizing and outsourcing services that the private sector can provide, right?

“I think it’s function-specific,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger. “There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education.”

Swanger’s right, but there is some irony in the fact that this move by Haywood comes at the same time the burgeoning Tea Party movement is criticizing government spending at all levels, and a local group has been riding Haywood commissioners incessantly. Let’s be clear that the hectoring by these government critics has nothing to do with the decision in Haywood. Still, there’s little doubt that the rise to power of the Tea Party is related to the economic crisis and government spending, which becomes an easy target when times are this tough. More than ever, there is a clamoring to cut costs and keep taxes low.

I’m not one of those who believe too much government is necessarily a bad thing. There are certainly inefficiencies in government regulations and bureaucracies, but the oil fouling the Gulf of Mexico right now points to real and ongoing need for oversight of certain businesses. The vital services that government provides to citizens are a reflection of our fundamental values as a society, whether it’s health care for the poor and elderly, or EPA regulators to keep an eye on industrial polluters. In many cases the only entity that can step in and provide these services is government, and that’s the way it ought to be.

The question of how far government’s hand should reach into our lives will never be settled outright. From our local courthouses and town halls to Raleigh (where a privatization of mental health care a few years ago has left us with a broken system) and up to D.C. (where many question using tax money to bail out banks and automakers), it’s a fundamental issue our founding fathers left unsettled.

These are the same philosophic issues that pitted Thomas Jefferson and his anti-government, agrarian vision against the Federalist Alexander Hamilton and his pro-business, strong central government beliefs. This was the central controversy at the time the republic was formed, and it still bedevils our government at every level.

I suspect that in the next few years we’ll see more attempts by local governments to divest or privatize services. It will be up to voters to decide whether that’s good or bad. Haywood commissioners can say this is about the budget and not philosophy, but it’s hard to see the difference from inside the voting booth.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Quest for cost savings leads Haywood to outsource trash and recycling

Faced with a tall and growing stack of bills in the solid waste department, Haywood County commissioners are seriously considering offloading part of county trash and recycling operations to private companies.

Whether it’s the $4.5 million spent to expand the White Oak landfill, expensive equipment sorely in need of repair or replacement, environmental fines incurred by the now defunct Francis Farm landfill, or a relentless rise in recycling without staffing to sort it — county commissioners have just about had enough.

The equivalent of 15 full-time employees would be out of a job as early as July 1, the start of the next fiscal year, if the outsourcing plan is enacted. Commissioners have yet to vote formally on the drastic change in county operations, but Commissioner Kevin Ensley says the board seems to be in agreement thus far.

“We’re pretty much going to be doing this,” Ensley said.

A solid waste task force has examined every facet of the issue and recommended the following:

• Privatize the county’s 10 convenience centers, where residents without trash pickup dump household garbage and recyclables, a move that would save the county $145,192.

• Eliminate the pick line at the recycling center where employees sort recyclables. Instead, haul recyclables — other than cardboard, paper and metal, which can be more profitable to sell — to another county to be sorted by machine. Citizens will be encouraged to sort their own recycling. Projected cost savings: $286,166.

• Eventually close the transfer station in Clyde some time this fall. Towns with trash pickup and private haulers would have to take loads directly to the White Oak landfill. Residents can still drop bulky items, metal, cardboard and paper in Clyde, however. Projected cost savings: $940,000 annually.

The first two recommendations may take place as early as July 1, though the transfer station shutdown will have to wait until the landfill is prepared for increased traffic. It would need a redesign to keep the public separated from heavy dump trucks and improvements to the dirt roads, which are passable only by four-wheel drive in the rain.

Even if the first two recommendations are implemented, the solid waste fee would still shoot up from $70 to $92 per household this year. County leaders say that the fee would jump even further to $110 if they don’t contract services out to private companies.

“We can’t ask our people to pay much more,” Commissioner Bill Upton said.

“Now would be the best time for us to go down this path,” said Commissioner Mark Swanger, who anticipates soliciting proposals and bids from contractors in the very near future.

Haywood leaders have already been in discussions with one Tennessee company and two North Carolina companies so far.

Furthermore, county leaders are exploring the option of private management of the landfill and have not completely ruled out selling the property.

“If they brought up the idea, we would listen,” said Stephen King, solid waste director for Haywood.

A devastating week

Last week, King had the difficult task of calling his employees at the recycling center together to announce that they would likely lose their jobs in less than two months.

King ran down to most of the county’s 10 convenience centers to personally deliver the bad news to workers there.

“It’s a very difficult predicament to be in,” said King. “I felt personally if I didn’t let them know, I would be doing them a disservice.”

Regardless, workers at the pick line are still deeply disappointed in county leaders.

“A lot of them have worked for some time,” said Dan Best, a pick line worker. “It’s just devastating for the people.”

With an unemployment rate at about 12 percent in Haywood County, Best said commissioners are sending much-needed Haywood jobs out of the county.

Larry Boone, an employee at Hazelwood convenience center, said he felt “uneasy” about the potential of losing both his job and benefits. Some of the savings from a private company taking over would likely be a result of lower wages and fewer benefits.

Though convenience center employees like Boone have a real chance of being rehired by the private companies that take over, it’s another story for the pick line workers at the recycling center.

“I have a lot of compassion for the employees,” said King, who said the gathering at the recycling center brought tears to his eyes. “I’m right here working with them.”

Ensley said he, too, hates to see job loss but pointed out that the county’s recommended budget is 2.5 percent lower compared to last year’s budget, reducing the size of government and saving taxpayers of Haywood County more money.

“I’m not comfortable with us losing jobs, but I’m more not comfortable with raising the fees and taxes,” said Ensley. “I would rather keep those as low as we can.”

Benefits of privatizing

Commissioners have depicted privatization of trash and recycling operations as a direct path to efficiency.

The county’s current system is decidedly antiquated compared to what private companies devoted solely to solid waste accomplish every day.

King said it’s been difficult trying to fix equipment so old that he has to call all over the country to find parts.

“It’s a lot of cost involved to get yourself updated,” said King. “We’ve just scraped by for so many years in trying to utilize everything we can.”

Most private companies can compact garbage far more tightly, which could mean a doubling or even tripling of the landfill’s capacity, according to Swanger.

Shutting down the transfer station would save the county from ferrying loads of trash to the landfill. “The least amount of times we can touch something, the more money you save,” said Upton.

County residents, however, would not be forced to make the long trek out to White Oak — located at exit 15 off I-40 — and would still be able to dump bulky items, like couches, at the Clyde facility.

Town and county residents may have to begin sorting recyclables since the county will ship off certain recyclables but keep paper, cardboard and metal in-house.

For now, blue bags containing those products would still be hauled away to be sorted by machine, even if they contain paper, cardboard or metal.

King pointed out that using a machine would be vastly more efficient than having employees pick through mountains of blue bags manually.

“If we’re able to process two tons a day, they’re able to process eight tons an hour,” said King.

Disputing claims

According to Dan Best, a recycling pick line employee, the commissioners would not save taxpayer money in the long run.

“It’ll be just as expensive or more expensive,” said Best. “They’re using that for an excuse, and it don’t hold water...What they’re after is to get it out of their hair.”

It would cost more to haul away recyclables than sort them here, Best said, adding that contractors may initially offer attractive deals, but they would jack up prices once they’ve secured an agreement.

Swanger disagreed, arguing that the county would carefully construct contracts with private entities to protect the taxpayers from such price increases.

Paul White, a private hauler in Haywood County, agreed with Best, adding that the move would actually harm small businesses and private households in the end.

Hauling trash directly to the landfill rather than the transfer station would prove taxing for his vehicle, since access to the landfill can be especially difficult during bad weather, and construction debris like nails often damage tires there.

White said he’ll have to pass on the cost for upkeep to his customers, some of whom are already having trouble paying for the service with the poor economy.

“That pretty well puts me out of business,” said White.

Though the county planned to meet with private haulers to discuss privatization, White is skeptical about how much voice he and his fellow haulers will actually have.

“They already know what they’re going to do,” said White. “This is just a token meeting.”

Not a philosophical decision

County leaders openly support the idea of privatizing the landfill, but they stop short of touting privatization as the answer to all of government’s problems.

“This is not a philosophical discussion,” said Swanger.

King said it’s not a matter of government’s ability, but rather of adequate funding.

“I think government can do jobs as well and sometimes even better as long as it’s properly funded or maintained through the years,” said King. “If we’d started from day one funding the whole aspect in a different matter, I think we’d be in a little bit different shape.”

Privatization isn’t the best option for every county department in Swanger’s view.

“I think it’s function-specific. There are things that only government can do that cannot be logically privatized: law enforcement, emergency services, education,” Swanger said. “Many things government does and does well. There are other things that can have better results with a public-private partnership.”

Swanger said the proposed solution for solid waste would create such a partnership, with regular reviews, scrutiny and compliance ensured by county officials.

A huge pile of good intentions

Haywood County Solid Waste Director Stephen King did not spend his interview with The Smoky Mountain News sitting at an office, pointing to encouraging recycling statistics.

Instead, King was constantly on the go, picking up a stray glove he spotted on the ground, ripping off plastic wrapping from a cardboard box headed to a recycling pile, and even sorting recyclables, taking the place of an employee as she chatted with the reporter.

King has personally learned to use all the equipment at the Materials Recovery Center in Clyde, where the county’s recyclables are hauled.

As many already know, King’s utter devotion to the cause does not wane after the workday is done. He’s known to spend his spare time picking up recyclables, just like he did with his dad as a young kid.

King says it’s difficult to see a mess without wanting to clean it up.

“It’s just a conscious effort, what I believe in, the way I think people should be,” said King. “I want to take something nobody else wants and make it a valuable commodity.”

Though King is modest about his role, it’s clear his wholehearted commitment to sustainability has given Haywood County an immense leg-up in increasing recycling.

“When the boss gets interested, that makes a big difference,” said Commissioner Bill Upton.

Haywood now ranks 11th in the state for total amount of material recycling, averaging 212.9 tons per capita, according to 2009 statistics from the North Carolina Department of Environmental and Natural Resources.

A mere two years before in 2007, Haywood County ranked 63rd out of 100 counties in the state. Since then, Haywood has practically doubled its per capita recovery of recyclables.

King said the citizens are the ones who deserve congratulations, not him.

“It’s not a one-man show, it’s a community effort,” said King.

Commissioner Mark Swanger said people are becoming more aware of the benefits of recycling and simply want to do the right thing.

“As generations grow up, it becomes a natural thing to do,” said Swanger. “It’s something they’ve always done.”

Government is certainly taking up the cause as well, with a state ban on plastic in the landfill passed in October 2009 and a landfill ban on discarded computer equipment set to take effect in April 2011.

Local county and town governments have worked to promote recycling to citizens through presentations, newsletters and educational materials online.

The Town of Waynesville is expecting to set its own record for recycling this year. From July to December 2009, the town picked up 157.2 tons of recyclables. If residents continue recycling at this rate, the town might break 300 tons at the end of the fiscal year in July 2010.

In comparison, Waynesville residents recycled a total of 173.6 tons for the entire 2004-2005 fiscal year.

Town Manager Lee Galloway said he’s personally observed an increase in recycling in his own household. Galloway and his wife recently put out their garbage before heading for a walk and realized they only had one bag of trash and two bags of recycling.

“Between what we put in the recycling and what we put in the compost, it really cuts down on what we put in the can at the street,” said Galloway.

Commissioner Kevin Ensley said he hadn’t educated himself on recycling until just last year. Until then, he didn’t realize citizens could recycle more than cardboard.

He went straight to Sam’s Club and bought himself two large trash cans to add to the one he already had for paper.

With seven people in his household, Ensley says he’s seen the number of trash bags he takes out decline from six a week to just two.

“It’s amazing, really,” said Ensley, who became convinced recycling was the way to go when he thought of all the space that recycling would save in the county landfill that taxpayers support.

“I’m not really an environmental-type person, I’m for keeping tax rates low,” said Ensley.

For those who are less than concerned with saving the environment, recycling advocates are likely to bring up two economic arguments to sway the debate.

Material that isn’t recycled heads to the landfill, which has finite space and which costs taxpayers to expand. A new cell at Haywood’s landfill cost almost $5 million and is projected to last five years. Recycling can add two years of life to that figure.

The second argument that’s routinely brought up by advocates is that recycling supports American jobs.

The county’s recycling center has five full-time employees devoted to sorting the steady stream of recycled materials that flows in. Then, there are the haulers who either bring recyclables to the facility or tow them away after they’ve been separated and compacted into enormous “bales.”

After them are those who work at plants that process recycled material, including many in North Carolina and nearby states like Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama.

“Recycling supports jobs in every one of these states,” said King.

Despite Haywood’s incredible success story with recycling, the picture’s not all rosy, as is evident as soon as one walks into the Materials Recovery Facility in Clyde.


The problem with success

A sea of blue plastic bags holding recyclables greets the eye and overwhelms the imagination at the MRF. It’s difficult to picture workers actually making progress, sorting through that mountainous heap.

In the face of a shocking surge in recycling, Haywood’s MRF has not gained, but actually lost employees in the past few years.

“We, in some respects, are a victim of our own success,” admits Swanger, who along with Upton serves on the county’s solid waste task force.

Robin Ledford, pick line operator and supervisor, can attest to that. She’s seen a jump from 4 to 6 tons a week of recyclables to 20 to 26 tons a week since she started working at the pick line three years ago.

The pick line is situated in an enclosed area above the heap of blue bags and mammoth bales of already sorted recyclables. It is reminiscent of the factories of yesteryear, where workers planted themselves in front of a conveyor belt all day, engaging in highly repetitive work.

An unsorted mess enters the room on the conveyor belt, as employees situated on either side of it work furiously to toss materials into one of four bins either beside them or across from them.

The quickest and most experienced employees take care of the front of the line, and the unsorted mess gradually becomes manageable as it moves forward.

A magnet sits at the end of the line to pick up some of the recyclables as well. It cost the county $23,000, but saved the county $18,000 in just the first year, according to King.

While the county says its studying needs at the MRF, Ledford and her co-workers are not shy about expressing their own opinions.

“We need help, but the county doesn’t seem to think we do,” said Ledford. “It’s stressful. It gets to you sometimes ... Everybody there gets depressed because it keeps piling up.”

Sometimes, workers are pulled from other departments within solid waste to help keep up with the never-ending tide of recyclables.

Sheriff Bobby Suttles has devoted as many as eight inmates to help out, but recently inmates haven’t been coming to the MRF.

Ledford demands that all commissioners — along with citizens — immediately take a tour of the facility. “They really don’t see what we do,” said Ledford.

However, Swanger said the solid waste task force is actively pursuing solutions to the problem. It’s just too early to say what action the county will take.

“I think it will be a while because it’s complicated,” said Swanger. “There’s much research to be done.”

Several presentations on solid waste have been made to the county board over the last few years, but the lion’s share of discussion is still taking place within the study committee.

For now, possibilities include privatizing various aspects of solid waste, including hauling recyclables from the MRF. Swanger assures employees these discussions are entirely premature. “We don’t want to scare employees, [but] we have an obligation, I think, to explore all possibilities.”

The option of hiring more employees to deal with the surge in recycling is not off the table, Swanger added.

Upton said there’s not only a need for additional staff, but also for a director of recycling.

In Ensley’s view, it would take a while before the county could add any staff to MRF.

“We’d have to have some growth in the economy to be able to add a position,” said Ensley. “We might be able to move some people laterally.”

While the need for a solution is obvious, some disagreement among commissioners exists over just how profitable recycling can be.

According to Swanger, recycling extends the life of the landfill, but it is generally not a profitable venture.

“In the long run, it does save money, but the actual selling of the commodities that are recyclable are not profitable,” said Swanger.

Ensley, however, said recycling could potentially be a moneymaker, and the more citizens recycle, the more recyclables the county can sell.

King also defended recycling’s potential for generating revenues. According to him, the recycling sector, like many others, is experiencing a down market, which has cut into revenues. The county could see more revenue if it invested money to improve operations and fix equipment that’s long sat unused at the recycling center.

A forklift has been sitting at the MRF for a year, waiting to be fixed, while a baler is approaching 20 years of service.

“Everywhere you turn, there’s equipment down like that,” said King. “You show me a piece of equipment in a business that’s 20 years old ... In a business, you gotta stay with the times.”

Paul White, a hauler from Maggie Valley, concurred with King, emphasizing that there’s only one baler in the recycling building that’s now operational.

“If it breaks down, they’re up the creek,” said White. “Stephen King is probably doing the best he can with what the county gives him to work with — but it ain’t enough.”


Unspeakable discoveries

Despite recycling’s many demonstrable benefits, there will always be a sliver of the population opposed to it, Swanger said.

Ledford has witnessed that opposition up close. She’s come across some “inhumane” items in her line of work, including dirty diapers, cat droppings, needles, and bagged dead animals, like a dead possum just last week.

Ledford doesn’t believe it’s an accident. “There’s no way you should get raw meat in your recyclables,” Ledford said.

Commissioners Swanger and Ensley were taken aback upon hearing about Ledford’s experience.

“Whether a person takes the time to recycle or not is one thing,” said Swanger. “But to protest against recycling is irresponsible.”

Ensley said he had not heard of such occurrences before. “That doesn’t really make any sense,” said Ensley. “You’d have to be really illiterate to do that.”

King, however, doesn’t want to pay attention to the slight minority that opposes recycling. For the rest of the world, it’s become almost fashionable to recycle or pursue sustainability.

King said he usually hates trends, but can’t deny the benefits of moving away from being a “throwaway society.”

“Most people are realizing we can’t have the same mentality of use, use, use, dispose, dispose, dispose,” King said. “They’re understanding we have to preserve some.”

Trash down, recycling up

The recession has been good news for landfills.

Due to the economic downturn, less trash was thrown in landfills in North Carolina last year than any year in the past two decades. The biggest reduction in trash came from the construction industry, which is a significant contributor to landfills.

Trash in landfills amounted to 1.07 tons per capita in 2008-09 — a sharp decline from the previous year and the lowest disposal rate since 1995, according to the “North Carolina Solid Waste Management Annual Report.”

The report also found that:

More glass, plastic and aluminum were recycled than ever before. One reason for the uptick in recycling could be the new state law that went into effect in 2008 requiring any restaurant with an ABC permit to serve beer or alcohol must recycle.

Curbside recycling programs had better numbers than recycling at drop-off centers. The report recommends increasing state oversight to prevent banned materials from making it into landfills, including aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

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