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Department of Public Works (DPW) inspectors descended upon the Northeast Distribution Center (NDC) in June, claiming that the waste-transfer station was violating the city’s illegal dumping laws. Inspectors closed the station, impounded seven garbage trucks, and slapped the driver of each truck with a $5,000 fine. A D.C. Superior Court judge threw out the charge, castigating the city for attempting to apply “fly dumping” laws, which were designed to nab haulers who discard refuse in vacant lots. To get around the court ruling, the city passed a July law that targeted haulers, requiring them to pay $30 for every ton of garbage they dumped at waste-transfer stations like NDC (see “Trash Cash Clash,” The District Line, 10/14).
The government wants to hog city trash because the District collects millions each year in fees from haulers who dump D.C. garbage at the city’s municipal landfill at Lorton, Va. In the latest attempt to shutter the privately owned stations, the council passed emergency legislation Dec. 6—drafted by the DPW and introduced by Council Chairman David Clarke—that imposes a web of new permit fees and operating taxes on garbage holding facilities like NDC.
“This bill could be appropriately labeled the “Anti-Northeast resolution,’ ” says the company’s attorney, Mark Griffin. Griffin has defended NDC in three separate cases in which the District has accused the company of violating the city’s illegal dumping act, polluting the environment, and fraudulently obtaining its certificate of occupancy. Griffin explains that the new legislation shores up the shaky legal arguments previously rejected by the courts.
Waste-transfer stations accept refuse from local collection companies, then transport it to low-cost, rural landfills. Dumping trash at a transfer station is much cheaper for the small garbage haulers than trucking it to Lorton, where DPW collects a $36-per-ton surcharge on top of Fairfax County tipping fees.
Over the past two years, several waste-transfer stations have opened in commercially zoned parts of Northeast and Southeast. Those stations, DPW officials claim, deprive the city of up to $4 million in revenue.
The city is desperate to recoup those losses, and this emergency legislation may accomplish that goal—either by taxing the living daylights out of stations or by driving them into bankruptcy. The measure would exact a $15,000 permit fee to operate a transfer facility and a “host charge” of $10 for every ton of refuse that the transfer facility is capable of processing in one year. In addition to this tax on hypothetical garbage, the council authorized in July a $30-per-ton surcharge on waste that local haulers actually dump at sites other than Lorton. (DPW has yet to start collecting this surcharge.)
“The impact is absolutely devastating,” complains A.J. Cooper, the lawyer who represents Eastern Trans-Waste, a transfer facility located on 1st Street SE. “It’s an obvious effort to bankrupt companies that operate waste transfer facilities in competition with the District.”
If DPW begins enforcing the legislation, Cooper and Griffin separately vow to sue the city on the grounds that the taxes represent an unconstitutional restraint of trade by forcing private trash companies to tip their refuse at the city dump. In May, the Supreme Court struck down a similar “trash flow control” scheme in a small New York town. (The Supreme Court decision could explain why DPW has yet to start collecting its $30 dumping surcharge.) Furthermore, the transfer station lawyers allege that the law’s modification of zoning regulations violates the city’s home rule charter, which grants exclusive authority for such matters to the D.C. zoning board.
DPW’s solid-waste officials would not make themselves available for comment on the emergency legislation. However, an aide for the council’s Committee on Public Works, which oversees DPW, said that the legislation aimed merely to regulate, not obliterate, the transfer stations. Such assurances ring hollow in light of the remarks made by Public Works Committee Chairman Harry Thomas at an Oct. 20 hearing on solid-waste issues. Thomas vowed to “get” NDC, and declared his unalterable opposition to all waste-transfer operations in his jurisdiction.