Patricia Dollar traces the beginnings of her peculiar crisis to a missing slip of paper. An employee of the Architect of the Capitol, the agency that maintains congressional buildings, Dollar managed the congressional recycling program. On Feb. 11, 1998, word came down that Rep. Henry Gonzalez had misplaced a manila envelope containing some critical items. Gonzalez staffers had turned their office inside out to find the envelope but had come up empty. So they asked the custodians to rummage through the trash.
Searching for the envelope entailed popping open a huge bale of compacted trash. The rotted food that poured out of the pile did not concern the workers as much as the chance of scraping up against broken glass or, worse yet, a deadly blood-borne pathogen on the tip of a spent syringe. “Once you cut a one-ton bale, it’s all over the floor,” says a House laborer who requested anonymity. “We had to break up three of those and sift through food waste and broken glass. It’s very undignified. There’s needles. There’s human waste.”
After news of the bizarre search leaked through the halls of Congress, Rep. Sam Farr complained to the Architect about the incident. Bob Miley, superintendent of House office buildings, then asked Dollar to write a response defending the decision to dig into the trash. At issue was whether the workers were slogging through rubbish or clean recyclable paper. “He asked me to skew the facts to imply that the paper involved was not contaminated and that it was recyclable paper,” says Dollar. She refused.
About a month later, Dollar was fired.
And on May 26, Congress’ Office of Compliance issued three citations against the Architect for exposing its workers to “serious hazards” in the search for Gonzalez’s envelope.
“I felt vindicated,” says Dollar. “And I thought, ‘Wow, the program was even worse than I thought.’”
The citations came in response to a complaint submitted by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). The Office of the Architect declined numerous Washington City Paper requests for comment.
Eight years ago, Dollar testified before the House subcommittee on procurement and printing on the importance of recycling. The lawmakers took her seriously and asked her to help craft the Congressional Recycling Act of 1990, a bill that aimed to make Congress a model for the rest of the nation’s recycling efforts.
It seemed a grand idea at the time. Congress, after all, is little more than a majestic paper mill, each day producing about seven tons of potentially recyclable paper.
When Dollar was hired as recycling coordinator in the summer of 1997, however, she found the 1990 bill rotting in the trash bin. The problem was obvious: While most of the waste in congressional offices found its way into the recycling bins, very little of it was actually recyclable.
For instance, the House office buildings sent out 2,220 tons of material for recycling in fiscal 1997. However, the House received nary a penny in compensation from the company that hauls the waste to a “refuse recovery” factory. The “recycling” collections, says Dollar, were mixed with food and other nonrecyclable materialsand with high-grade paper material contaminated with newsprint. Staffers also routinely threw plastic bottles, binders, and file holders in with recyclable paper. No one on the Hill, it seemed, knew how to recycle.
If the problem was obvious, so was the solution. Dollar proposed reducing contamination by publishing a newsletter and Web site with helpful hints for recycling neophytes, teaching them how separate the organics, paper, glass, and metal before collection. It could all be done at negligible cost, promised Dollar.
The plan made it to the Architect’s office, and no farther. Dollar was told by Miley, she says, that recycling was nothing more than fodder for speeches made by politicians every year around Earth Day. There would be no need for a newsletter or Web site. She would have to make do with a brochure printed in 1991.
Dollar says she suspects the honchos at the Architect’s office feared that a robust recycling program would offend lawmakers who oppose recycling. Noting that seven members of Congress actually voted against the 1990 bill to recycle in Congress, Dollar argues that certain environmental Neanderthals see recycling as more often costly than beneficial to the paper industry, regardless of environmental benefits.
That attitude incensed Dollar. Despite the obstacles, she managed to turn things around for a few months. By visiting congressional offices and speaking to staffers personally, she made changes that produced revenues for the program. In October 1997, the program reaped $2,050 from high-grade and newsprint-grade paper collections. “That’s roughly equivalent to the entire year’s proceeds for the Architect of the Capitol complex, exclusive of the House Office Buildings,” the ex-recycling coordinator now says. “There’s obviously a lot of room for improvement.”
Dollar would have been happy to continue her office-by-office proselytizing campaign, but the Architect wanted her out, she says. The Architect’s brass, she claims, gave up on her the moment she refused to paper over the Gonzalez episode.
Dollar told Miley that Rep. Farr was absolutely correct in charging that the workers were sifting through trash, not recyclable materials. Furthermore, the problem would continue as long as the Architect thwarted congressional recycling.
“They called me a troublemaker,” Dollar bridles. “They said I was not a ‘team player.’ I told them I don’t play for teams that shave points. I told them their recycling program was a joke, and that I was not going to be part of their cover-up.”
Dollar says Miley insisted that she write the response to Farr because she had expertise in recycling. “I said that because I have the expertise, I cannot call this recycling. It’s garbage. I said, ‘If you force me to write this letter, my resignation will go on top of it.’ That’s when he started yelling at me. So I left, saying, ‘Gentlemen, I think this meeting is over.’”
Three days later, she was canned.
The remnants of Congress’ recycling program exited with Dollar. When the safety citations were handed down for the Feb. 11 incident, the baling machine was turned off until further noticein effect pulling the plug on recycling. “For now the whole operation is shut down until they get the proper safety equipment,” says one of the custodians who picked through the trash.
Dollar, however, will continue fighting with her ex-bosses. She has hired an attorney and is considering legal action to redress her wrongful dismissal. “Never piss off a redhead,” she warns. Labor, at least, is backing her. On June 9, AFSCME’s Local 626 filed a formal grievance against the Architect for “willful unsafe acts of personnel endangerment,” not to mention the “misuse and misapplication of the administrative process to effect the removal of Ms. Dollar in reprisal for her congressional disclosure.” Says Hazel Dews, the local’s president: “Why should Pat Dollar have to lie? You shouldn’t have to lie to cover up for management.”
Don Maddrey, a representative from AFSCME’s Council 26, the umbrella organization for union members who work in the federal government, says he expects more stonewalling from the Architect. “Based on what we’ve seen from them holding management accountable,” says Maddrey, “we’re not holding our breath.”
And if AFSCME’s grievances make a public issue of her dismissal, says Dollar, “more heads could rollnot just mine.”CP