Cash for Trash

The city's new recycling center is up and running, sort of

A crisp and dusty breeze sweeps off McCommas Bluff and into Dallas' new "Citizen's Convenience and Recycling Center" where about two dozen city workers and officials sit at cafeteria tables covered with red and white checkered cloths. At a podium set up in the open-air structure, officials proudly announce the opening of the long-awaited center downwind from the city's landfill. City Councilwoman Lois Finkelman, a well-known recycling advocate, is among those to speak in praise of the city's recycling programs and the center.

"We have got a long way to go as a city, but we are certainly heading in the right direction," she says.

Behind her, a truck emblazoned with the red "CWD" logo of the city's multimillion-dollar recycling contractor, Community Waste Disposal, sits like a watchdog. In front of her, at a buffet table, a catered hot barbecue lunch co-sponsored by Community Waste Disposal waits for all comers.

That was last Friday at the bluff. It was a good day for a free barbecue lunch. It was also a good day for the city's recycling program, with the contractors and public officials touting purported successes such as the new recycling center and the city's costly curbside recycling program.

Not many regular folks showed up, but even if they had bothered attending the festivities, they would not have heard the backstory: how the city hastily painted up the site and parked trash collection containers there for the opening ceremony. That the site had sat unused and neglected for years. That, according to one prominent Dallas environmentalist, the city stood to lose thousands of dollars in grant money if it failed to make some kind of effort at the site and fast.

And the public wouldn't have heard how serious questions about Community Waste Disposal's curbside recycling operations first raised by the Dallas Observer earlier this year and later by city auditors have been essentially brushed aside, with the company merely pledging to tighten its computer controls. While the Dallas City Council in September toyed with the idea of dumping the curbside program altogether because so few residents actually use it, in the end they decided to keep it unchanged. Community Waste Disposal's contract is potentially worth $17 million during its five-year run.

Joanne Hill, a longtime city watchdog and recycling advocate who badgered the city about the dormant McCommas Bluff recycling facility, is dubious about the hoopla surrounding the center. For one thing, she says, the timing is certainly suspect. Just last month, the North Central Texas Council of Governments put the city on notice that it would be investigating the use of grant funds such as the $250,000 that was awarded to the city four years ago to set up a recycling center at McCommas Bluff.

The grant money was supposed to pay for a much more elaborate recycling and sorting facility with conveyor belts, trenches for truck dumping and workers to remove recyclable materials otherwise destined for the landfill a short distance away, Hill says. Instead, the city prettied up the structure that resembles a jumbo carport, where Dallas residents will supposedly come to unload their recyclables--which, in theory, will be purchased and picked up by private vendors.

"This building should have had a tipping truck, it should have had two pits, one where you put the garbage and it goes up a conveyor belt," Hill says. "The cardboard was supposed to go to be baled and you've got a loading dock where a Bobcat picks it up, and when the trailer is full, the vendor comes and gets it and you get paid."

Jody Puckett, the city's department of sanitation services director, says the site may be different from what was originally planned, but it is a good use of money that had nothing to do with a grant inventory by the council of governments.

"I think the original contemplation was to have it as what they call a 'dirty MRF' [material recycling facility] where you would dump it on the floor and sort municipal solid waste as it comes through, and that just wasn't feasible," she says. "We think this is a good use of funds, and I think it's a step in the right direction regardless of the opinions of others."

As recently as spring, when the Observer was making inquiries about all aspects of the city's recycling program, the McCommas Bluff recycling center appeared abandoned and without a future. Barrels were stored on a concrete pad that had standing water and gaping holes. At the time, Puckett described the structure as poorly designed and an impractical project in light of depressed markets for recycling.

Just six months later, the barrels are gone, holes in the concrete mended and the pad swept clean. At Friday's "Barbecue at the Bluff," the facility was surrounded by tractor-trailers like the kind that will supposedly be used to haul recyclable materials to markets away from the landfill. Puckett believes residents will drive to the far southern Dallas location and divert recyclables such as scrap metal from the landfill.

"Right now it doesn't look like much...but it's been in service before today," Puckett says. "People can drive in to put their stuff in. The usual suspects...plastics, we'll have metals, a bin for lumber."

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