Filler Down In The Dumps

Where Is The City Going To Put Our Trash?
By Dave Devine

WE HIDE IT under our sinks, throw it in gargantuan plastic cans and wait for an unseen truck to come around to pick it up and bury it. It's our garbage and, like some undying, unstoppable zombie, it keeps coming back to haunt us.

Every year, 570 tons of the stuff are buried in the city's landfills on Harrison Road and at Los Reales. More is dumped at the county's landfills. These facilities are filling up fast; the Harrison Road landfill will be closed permanently in just six months, by the end of March 1997.

But the garbage keeps rolling in. So where is it going to go? And what is being done about the environmental hazards of these landfills?

Years ago, the city and county governments tried to work together to find a site for a new regional landfill, but political haggling doomed the effort. The recommended site was south of town, and Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom, who represents the area, informed his colleagues they should forget about treading on his district.

The three Republicans on the Board of Supervisors--Ed Moore, Paul Marsh and Mike Boyd--did vote to purchase an expensive piece of property in the area, but that was just a waste of money. The landfill wasn't going to go there and they knew it.

So for the past few years, a decision has been stalled. But with the Harrison Road landfill closing and current capacity in Los Reales running out by 1999, the city has to decide soon what it will do to create more space.

The City Council still harbors hopes of working out a regional landfill solution. In late March, the Council asked the Board of Supervisors to discuss the issue, but a date has yet to be set for a meeting. Nobody at the county knows who's responsible for setting a date, which raises a disturbing question: If it takes more than four months just to think about holding a joint meeting between the two elected bodies, how long will it take for them to agree on a new landfill site?

That leaves the city looking at other options, according to Eliseo Garza, director of the Solid Waste Management Department. The first possibility is to add one new lined cell for garbage at Los Reales. Although the project could be funded, it would provide only two years of additional capacity.

The second option, which is not funded, would expand Los Reales much further, increasing its useful life to 2013. However, the City Council would have to consider any concerns the Board of Supervisors have about the expansion and operation of Los Reales.

The city could also pursue a regional facility, but Garza estimates the siting and permitting process would take between three and four years. When you add a relunctant Board of Supervisors, the chances for a regional facility appear dim.

If we are going to have somewhere to bury our garbage in the next century, the City Council is going to have to make a decision shortly about the operation at Los Reales. The time for political posturing has run out.

Some City Councilmembers have also indicated an interest in pursuing a Texas company's proposal that would convert garbage into construction materials. We wouldn't have to bury anything. But the prospects for that option appear very limited.

At the same time, the city is looking at enormous costs to remediate the environmental contamination caused by our present landfills. City Manager Michael Brown told the Council months ago that to meet legally mandated clean-up requirements, an additional $4.2 million was needed in this year's budget. Only $2.5 million more was actually approved, but Garza said the shortfall can be covered using bond funds.

Next year, the price tag rises to $7.8 million for legally mandated remediation--a cost that has no funding source. Garza says the city might be able to delay some of these projects, but these are costs that will have to be paid someday.

In the meantime, Brown and his department heads have been lobbying hard for a residential garbage fee. The bill for the clean-up of our landfills is coming due, but nobody knows how to pay it.

So-called free garbage collection is a city tradition and an annexation incentive. The potential political fall-out from supporting a garbage fee has some on the City Council fearing a recall if a fee were imposed.

Their concerns may be justified, but there's no doubt garbage pick-up today is anything but free. Sales taxes and other city revenues go to pay the almost $12 million the city spends on residential garbage and recycling service.

On the recycling front, the city's efforts to reduce the flow of garbage into the landfills is moving along very slowly. In October, the city will begin the second phase of a pilot project which cuts back collection to once a week while increasing recycling and yard-waste service. After a year, the Council will receive a report on the pilot program, and they may vote to extend it citywide. TW

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