Guest Commentary

For some on the far northwest side, a private company has made trash into a troublesome issue

Most people know "Alice's Restaurant," the tune about a hapless Arlo Guthrie who tries to get rid of a load of garbage to help out a friend (Alice) on Thanksgiving. Because the town dump is closed on the holiday, he throws the garbage over the side of a cliff and ends up getting arrested for littering.

Up here in rural Pinal County, many of us for years hauled our trash to a transfer station in Catalina, down in Pima County. It took up to three trash bags for $2, allowing us to avoid paying a monthly fee to a private hauler and, in my case, carting a huge plastic trash receptacle up and down a steep and treacherous hill.

On Nov. 1, Pima County raised the nonresident fee from $2 for a few bags of trash to $20 per car. Alarmed, I called the county, and was told that the solid-waste division was in "dire straits" because of the expense involved in trucking garbage from Catalina to the county landfill on Tangerine Road.

Keep in mind that the city of Tucson provides weekly residential trash (and recycling!) pickup for a mere $14 per month, without additional public support. That fee pays for environmental protection and the cleanup of inactive landfills, and special large-item pickup and brush-dump days. Low-income families can even get a waiver for most of that fee. (That money comes out of the general fund.)

Apparently, Pima County's Tangerine landfill revenue started dribbling away in the late 1990s, at about the time a huge, private trash hauler, Waste Management, opened its own landfills in neighboring Pinal County.

Waste Management, with 20 million customers nationally and 80,000 residential customers in Pima County alone, grossed revenues of $13.4 billion in 2006. And they say garbage isn't profitable!

A dozen years ago, the mega-garbage company acquired those landfills, because Pinal County was desperate to get out of the business, which was draining away $500,000 per year. According to a 1995 county news release, obtained for an article last fall in the East Valley Tribune, Pinal County officials were worried about the specter of $300,000 in fees because of a regulatory crackdown by the Environmental Protection Agency, and another $4 million in costs to close and cap landfills.

That same year, Pinal County auctioned off its six waste sites for $164,245 to United Waste, which Waste Management acquired in 1998.

The move "allowed Waste Management to pile trash on land it does not own at multiple sites across the county, for which it bears scant legal liability and pays no fees or property taxes," the Tribune article stated. "Of the property Waste Management did purchase as part of the deal, roughly six acres at six dispersed sites, none is zoned for commercial activity and about half is being taxed at a lower rate than is required for business."

Good deal.

In Oracle, Waste Management charges $20 or more per month for weekly garbage pickup (recycling not included), or $13.50 per carload at the Oracle Transfer Station. No single bags, please. Oh, and if you fax Pinal County Supervisor Lionel Ruiz's office in Mammoth with proof of Pinal County residency, you can get three free dump permits per year. Assuming you have your own dump truck and waste depot, of course.

Which is why some residents were hauling their garbage down to Pima County in the first place.

Now, the new rules at the Catalina station have severely curtailed use by nonresidents. Total transactions plummeted to 1,318 in December, down from 2,367 in December of 2006.

Did these 1,000 people sign on with Waste Management? Not according to its Arizona spokesman. So what are they doing? Prowling around in the middle of the night dumping trash bags behind the local Bashas'? Or, like Arlo, throwing them over the nearest cliff?

Shades of "Alice's Restaurant." Maybe I'll just throw my garbage down the hill.

You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant.
Excepting Alice
You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant
Walk right in it's around the back
Just a half a mile from the railroad track
You can get anything you want, at Alice's Restaurant
Da da da da da da da dum
At Alice's Restaurant."

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