Sometimes it's hard to watch the sausage get made in local government. And sometimes, there's ample and excess reasons to call out elected officials and their appointed counterparts for mistakes.
Maybe I didn't get the memo on this one, but I'm somehow not feeling the outrage that some in the community seem to around the fact that Durham's yard waste recycling program is (still) streaming its product in to the same Virginia landfills that our garbage gets trucked to.
Perhaps I'm right in shrugging my shoulders at the "ABC 11 Investigates" story that came up yesterday, thinking it's not really that much of a big deal. Then again, maybe after five years in Durham, perhaps I'm caught up in a Stockholm syndrome phenomenon, where it's easy to get used to things that one might ought not be so docile about.
In the end, the best news may be that the days of dual-pickup becoming a single-stream disposal method look to be over, with assistant city manager Ted Voorhees telling WTVD that the yard waste program should get back to its recycling roots in a matter of a few weeks.
So just how big a deal is it that a service planned to be only briefly interrupted has stretched into a near-memory?
If there's one thing that really comes out of the ABC 11 report, it's that it's easy to find people who weren't aware of the situation at all.
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Mind you, I'm not one to give free passes to broadcast media sometimes for their local coverage, but kudos to ABC 11 for a balanced job on the story overall -- save for one conclusion we'll skip to later on.
Though not obvious from the transcript of the story on their web site, the video segment broadcast does include a clear mention that this has been a story kicking around for a while, and that local officials have been upfront about their challenges in reopening Durham's yard waste compost facility, shut down several years back after it ignominiously caught fire due to the heat generated from nature's own recycling.
And they also raise the City's concern at the heart of what Voorhees says was a two-year delay in the process -- a requirement raised by the state mid-stream in the re-permitting process that the City clean up its compost waste, taking any rain that happens to hit it and processing it before letting it reach Falls Lake, something other cities haven't had to deal with.
Since the embarrassing yard waste disposal pile fires a few years back, which cost the City its state yard waste disposal permit and led to some head-rolling within the administration, Durham's been trucking its yard waste out of state to a landfill in Virginia that also accepts household and other waste processed at the transfer station....
And the biggest hold-up? Believe it or not, it's dog poop.
"If we were only taking woody waste and leaves, and leaving out grass clippings, we would have been able to get our permit a while back," Valencia says.
But you know those same debates taking place over phosphorus and nitrogen running into Falls and Jordan Lake? Those nutrients are high in fertilizer -- even the canine kind -- leading to all kinds of hand-wringing with the state over how to handle the yard waste runoff.
"Out state regulator folks never came to us and said, 'Do A, B and C, and you'll get a permit,'" Valencia said, noting that back-and-forth negotiations have taken place over how to handle the nutrient load.
The somewhat ingenious solution? The yard waste disposal site will be on E. Club Blvd. near the transfer station -- and near the wastewater treatment plant.
The ground will be sloped and yard waste deposited on it, with manmade ponds at the bottom of the hills. Rainfall will carry the runoff over the yard waste, sweeping nutrients along the grass clippings and the like and into the pond...
...from which the water will be summarily pumped into the wastewater treatment plant for processing.
Whoda' thunk it could take so much green (cash) to keep our green (clipping) safe and environmentally, well, "green?"
So, maybe we here at BCR weren't surprised since it's been out there in the public record for a while.
The real issue ABC 11 raises, though -- and it's a fairly pertinent one -- is whether the public has been misled in any way by the long delay in the program.
After all, ABC 11 notes, the trucks that come by still say "Yard Waste Recycling" on their sides. You still pay an extra fee to get your yard waste picked up. Yet your yard waste goes to the same place your garbage goes.
The station goes on to estimate that, since the program's cost exceeds its revenues by $1 million a year, it costs an average of $9 every time a yard waste customer gets a City pick-up.
So, they argue, why not just let residents throw their yard waste into the garbage cans:
Contrary to what Durham solid waste officials have said in the past, state law does not force separate collection of leaves and garbage. The law says yard waste cannot be dumped in a landfill in North Carolina. But Durham takes its yard waste to a landfill in Virginia.
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It's an argument that's hard to quarrel with, intuitively. After all, if there's no yard waste service in yard waste service, and dumping is allowed, why not just throw it in the garbage?
The logic seemed to resonate with some of the men-on-the-street interviewed by ABC 11 for the report, who were surprised to know their yard waste wasn't being recycled at all right now.
Still, I'm inclined to agree with the City's logic on this one: it's environmentally preferable to recycle yard waste once we can do it again; why get people in the habit of sending yard waste to landfills?
To my mind, the City has to pay for pick-up collection of waste, be it garbage or yard waste, anyway.
And yes, at a first pass analysis, there is an extra cost in sending two sets of trucks around.
But on the flip side, once you pay the pick-up costs, you're left with the second part of the equation: disposal costs.
And while landfilling all that yard waste is a neat little solution in some ways, in the long run, I'd wager you spend a lot more on trucking waste to Virginia than you do putting it out to compost in a City facility. Even after you factor in the wastewater.
So what of the quasi-populist idea that you can save money on separate collection by just schlepping it all up to Virginia through single-stream household and yard waste pickup?
Maybe the separate collection program's costs would outweigh the extra expense of trucking yard waste to Virginia. Maybe it wouldn't.
But I don't think a simplistic calculus looking only at current collection costs is the way we figure that out.
To the mass-market viewer who saw this story unawares of the back-history, outrage is one possible reaction. (One OWD resident has already called for Solid Waste's Donald Long and Voorhees to get recycled to a landfill somewhere, professionally speaking -- a judgement I'd say far outstrips the merit of the situation.)
And as the man on the street interviews showed, there's a lot of folks without any background in the issue who'll see this as a money waster.
ABC 11 -- which, again, did a pretty decent job with this story -- does take time to raise a new issue, or at least an old issue in a new way, and to ask for scrutiny over spending.
Kudos to them for that. But I find myself hoping we can dig deeper into the real costs and savings here, to avoid a penny-wise, pound-foolish outcome.
Then again, there's a lot of outrage around Durham for years about the aftermath of the yard waste mess, and the delays in getting this restarted.
Am I stuck in Sweden on this one after all?