Our Garbage, Ourselves

Scaling Mount Trashmore, sorting through the clues to the mystery of everyday life

Through the early Nineties, the Department of Solid Waste Management handled the vast majority of this cargo. It landfilled as much of 68 percent of it -- more than one million tons per year at Trashmore, smaller portions at the county's other major dump, the North Dade Landfill. Now, as noted above, Mount Trashmore is nearly shut down. While the tonnage of garbage produced here in Paradise has never been heftier, the "waste stream" handled by county workers has dropped to a paltry 1.3 million tons per annum, roughly half of what it used to be. The garbage that once went south to Trashmore now goes north -- 950,000 tons of solid waste quietly crossed the Broward County line last year, vanishing from our midst. This is a new phenomenon in local history.

The impetus for it was twofold. In May 1994 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that metropolitan governments such as Dade's could no longer dictate what individual cities do with their garbage. Sweetwater, Hialeah Gardens, Key Biscayne, Coral Gables, and other Dade municipalities were suddenly free to stop participating in the county collection-and-disposal network and to explore other options. And they did, with a vengeance.

"I've been with the county twenty years and never seen anything like it," says Debbie Higer, chief of service development for the solid waste department. "We went overnight from having the authority to direct the flow, to a pure market system. This was a huge problem. And Dade County was the hardest hit of any in the United States."

The hardest hit because, while county planners reeled from the implications of the Supreme Court decision, a subsidiary of WMX Inc., the largest private garbage-hauling firm on Earth (cofounded, and still partly owned, by H. Wayne Huizenga) had already opened two gargantuan mass-burn incinerators in West Broward. Dade had been charging its cities $95 per ton to dump refuse at Trashmore. Beginning in 1991, the owners of the new incinerators offered short-term contracts to Dade cities with "tipping fees" as low as $38 per ton. The garbage exodus began.

On the one hand, pollution-conscious residents of Dade can now rejoice that we are palming off on Broward the equivalent of an aircraft-carrierful of old hot dogs, wilted lettuce, cinder blocks, and Miami Heralds. Like banking, garbage management is becoming a regional rather than strictly a local industry. But there are losers as well as winners -- among them Surrendra Dial's 69 ex-coworkers. Another 202 employees of the solid waste department were laid off at midyear. Since 1994 the department has suffered an average annual shortfall of $30 million. If it were a private firm, it might have chosen by now to file for bankruptcy.

That, however, is not an option. Though the department's revenues have plummeted, its fixed costs haven't. Florida's Growth Management Act of 1985 mandates that Dade County provide a garbage-collection and -disposal system sufficient to take care of the entire county population -- not just the communities it now actually serves. Mount Trashmore isn't making much money burying new solid waste, yet the expense of building interceptor trenches, pumping leachate, closing old cells and preparing new ones hasn't decreased. State law also holds that fees collected for curbside garbage pickup can't blithely be increased and used to offset vanished landfill revenues.

But if the Department of Solid Waste Management is still handling 1.3 million tons of garbage, why isn't Mount Trashmore a boom town? Because Dade County has its own incinerator, to whose fiery doors it is contractually obligated to deliver 936,000 tons of refuse each year. Should the county fall short, the private firm that operates the incinerator still gets paid the same amount. The contract extends into the 21st Century. Though no public policy decision ever took place, Dade County now disposes of almost all of its solid waste in a markedly different way from the methods of the early Nineties -- by burning rather than burying. It is garbage economics that dictated the shift.

Incinerators are famously expensive, by the way, and ours is no exception. County engineers are about to begin retrofitting the plant with newfangled pollution-control devices required by the 1990 Clean Air Act. They estimate the cost for this chore will be $60 million.

Dade's dethroned kings of the mountain have been scrambling hard to make ends meet. Besides the layoffs, in October garbage department strategists were able to tack on to citizens' water and sewer bills a 3.5 percent surcharge to help mitigate problems associated with runoff. A new program rescues trash just before it enters the county incinerator, grinds it up, and sells it to a sugar mill in Okeelanta for use as fuel. The county is also lobbying Congress to legislatively reverse the effects of the 1994 Supreme Court decision regarding garbage control.

But more than anything else, the solid waste department has put its back into recapturing its wayward trash. To compete with Broward, Dade has dropped its per-ton tipping fee from $95 to $45. Debbie Higer, one of the top lieutenants in the Garbage War, believes the county will ultimately regain half a million tons of lost business. Already a few renegade municipalities have returned to the herd, opting for the reassuring stability of long-term contracts with Dade County. The department could break even as early as next year, Higer says.

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