EVERETT — The truck driver had traveled about 150 miles from Arlington hauling a trailer full of garbage when curiosity about the unmarked police car on his tail got the better of him.
He pulled to the shoulder on an I-5 overpass near the Cowlitz County city of Castle Rock, then walked back to meet the Snohomish County sheriff’s deputy who had pulled up behind him.
The deputy told the trucker he’d been following him the whole way and that it’s illegal to take solid waste from Snohomish County and dump it elsewhere.
“Yeah, I know,” the trucker reportedly said, before getting in his cab and continuing to a landfill a few miles to the east.
That encounter from January is described in a search warrant affidavit seeking evidence of Snohomish County garbage winding up at the Weyerhaeuser Regional Landfill, a three-hour drive away.
It’s a big enough problem that the county has budgeted nearly $250,000 this year to document and investigate.
The money at stake for the county, however, potentially runs into the millions of dollars.
“The more tons that leave the system, it just becomes more costly for those who are following the rules,” county solid waste director Matt Zybas said.
Zybas’ staff estimates that up to 60,000 tons of solid waste are illegally taken from the county every year. The trash isn’t just heading south, but eastward over the mountains as well. The Anderson Limited Purpose Landfill in Yakima County reported accepting 16,000 tons of construction and demolition material from Snohomish County in 2010, according to the most recent figures available from the state Department of Ecology. A manager at the Weyerhaeuser Regional Landfill reportedly said his facility had accepted 6,900 tons of Snohomish County’s waste during the second half of 2011, according to the affidavit.
County solid waste officials say that illegal dumping is at least a $2 million loss in annual revenue.
Look at the difference between what it costs to dump garbage in Snohomish County compared to rural landfills, and the economic temptation to skirt the law becomes obvious.
Tipping fees at Snohomish County transfer stations are $105 per ton. At the Weyerhaeuser Regional Landfill and other facilities in Yakima County, the fee hovers around $30 per ton.
For a truck toting 25 to 30 tons of garbage, the savings could approach $2,000 per load.
Counties have the legal right to enforce where their trash winds up. That legal concept is known as “flow control.” The rule is intended to help local governments recoup investments in their solid waste infrastructure. That includes paying off millions of dollars in bonds used to build transfer stations as well as funding for recycling programs, monitoring closed landfills, disposing of household hazardous waste and long-term planning.
King, Spokane and Pierce counties have similar rules about keeping trash local, but those regulations aren’t always backed up with undercover operations or the threat of fines.
“No one has enforced the flow-control ordinance to the degree that Snohomish County has,” said Peter Christiansen, a manager with state Department of Ecology’s Waste 2 Resources Program. “They’re on the books for most folks, but hardly anyone is enforcing it, either because of lack of staffing or they’re not aware that material is leaving the county.”
The conflict over waste leaving Snohomish County has largely involved recycling companies and how they dispose of leftover materials they’re unable to reprocess. Some of the companies have complained that the county’s rules threaten to put them out of business, meaning a loss of jobs and valuable recycling services.
In 2011, deputies issued two garbage citations for $1,500 each. Both of those cases involved waste going to landfills in Yakima County. The fined companies, Maltby Container &Recycling and Bobby Wolford Trucking, both tried to unsuccessfully to appeal their fines. Maltby Container and Recycling faces a second fine and is seeking to appeal it as well.
Not everybody in county government is convinced that the enforcement is paying off.
“I think, potentially, putting two sheriff’s deputies on to write $3,000 per year in tickets is not making a lot of economic sense,” County Council Chairman Brian Sullivan said.
Along with stricter enforcement, Snohomish County also has offered price cuts as an incentive for companies to use its solid-waste system.
The reduced rate affects what recyclers pay to ship waste to the north Everett rail yard where it’s loaded onto trains for transport to Eastern Washington.
The County Council last year reduced the rate for those companies to $82 per ton, instead of the same $105 per ton tipping fee charged at transfer stations. Recycling companies said they needed the break to stay in business and are quick to point to ways that recycling benefits society. Some garbage companies, which have recycling operations of their own, are opposed to the separate rate.
Solid waste director Zybas credited that price cut with bringing an extra 7,100 tons of waste into the county system between April and December of last year.
“The revenues from that were successful at recovering the revenues for the deputies,” he said.
Brad Lovaas, executive director of the Washington Refuse and Recycling Association, commended Snohomish County for the enforcement, even though it places more scrutiny on his industry.
Flow control is the law, Lovaas said, and it makes sense for legitimate companies to support enforcement.
Last week, the County Council again reduced the rate for recyclers to ship waste to the rail yard, to $65 per ton.
The Solid Waste Division is supposed to give an update in about a year, gauging whether the latest cut encouraged more companies to use the county’s solid waste system.
“That’s what the recyclers said, so we’re willing to test it and see if it’s true,” County Councilman Dave Gossett said. “Now what we’ll do is to wait and see what happens, to see if the flow does return and to re-evaluate in a year whether we continue the rate or not.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, firstname.lastname@example.org.