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Headquarters Landfill

Heavy machinery spreads out and packs waste at the Headquarters landfill. Privatizing the landfill was a hot topic during the November election, serving as a wedge issue in the race for County Commissioner and influencing many voters' thinking on the failed carbon tax, Initiative 1631.

The Cowlitz County commissioners Tuesday night ended discussions about contracting out management of the Headquarters Landfill to Republic Services but set ambitious goals for the county’s continuing management of the facility.

After hearing concerns and answering questions from citizens for more than two hours, Commissioners Dennis Weber and Joe Gardner passed Weber’s landfill management goals for the county.

The goals include preferential rates for local waste producers, maintaining an odor control policy, maintaining current waste volumes and mitigating congestion on Headquarters Road.

The goals also call upon the Public Works Department to generate $4 million to $10 million in net annual revenue for the county once bonds for the landfill are paid off.

Commissioner Arne Mortensen, a long-time proponent of using a private company to run the landfill, opposed the measure.

“We can agree to disagree but we can agree to do what’s best for everyone in the county,” Weber said. “We can do that ... by ending the discussion for now.”

Mortensen said that while Public Works has the commissioners’ full support, he felt that Republic Services’ management would be better for the county.

“I have heard the equivalent of ‘we can do better,’ but there have been no guarantees or any kind of business plan out of the public works department,” Mortensen said. “They’ve been operating the landfill for roughly four years now and our 100-year landfill is now expected to be 73 years.”

The vote concludes the county’s years-long discussion — for now. The commissioners left the door open in case future county leaders find that Public Works can’t turn the landfill into the revenue source that a private management company could.

Should that happen, the conversation could start again.

Cowlitz County expects to make about $6 million off the landfill next year, with about $3.5 million of that going to the general fund to pay for government operations and $2.5 million to pay off bonds sold to buy the landfill from Weyerhaeuser Co., said County Finance Director Kurt Williams.

By rejecting privatization, the county turned away from the $15 million up front Republic Services offered and $6 million each year the company would pay to the county to operate the landfill (landfill bonds would have been paid out of that, too). Republic also would have assumed all political, financial and environmental risk of the landfill. (No contract was actually negotiated, so these numbers even preliminary.)

Nevertheless, Weber told The Daily News earlier this month the mayors of all five cities in Cowlitz County were happy with his call to end the discussion. And Gardner has said several times that a majority of the citizens he has discussed the landfill with said they don’t want to see it privatized.

Citizens seem to have spoken on the matter — both Gardner and Jerry Cooper, former challenger for Gardner’s seat, told TDN on election night they believed their stances on the landfill played a key role in voters’ decision to re-elect Gardner.

Concern focused on long-term disposal rates for county citizens and concerns about shortening the life of the landfill. Republic would have maxed out the permit for the facility, which is limited to accepting 1 million tons of waste a year. That means it would have hauled large amounts of municipal waste from across Western Washington. The county, by contrast, intends to keep the volume of waste down to 700,000 to 750,000 tons a year, Williams said.

The process has been fraught with allegations that the county broke state competitive bidding laws. Specifically, one of the competing vendors, Waste Connections, accused the county of colluding with Republic to give the company a competitive edge. The county employees denied any sort of outside influence in their decision to narrow down possible management to Republic Services.

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