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Cash for Trash

City council member Lois Finkelman is a staunch supporter of Dallas' recycling effort.
Peter Calvin

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."

Sources at the council of governments on Friday confirmed that a site review had not been conducted, but it appears that the city built what it needed to satisfy grant requirements.

Puckett says she is satisfied with the way the convenience center turned out and is similarly satisfied with Community Waste Disposal's curbside recycling operation. The Observer reported in its May 16 investigative report "Garbage In, Garbage Out" that company records made it appear that CWD's drivers were weighing the same loads repeatedly to get additional credit; that the city had no idea how much the company was actually collecting or from how many residents; that company scales favored CWD; and that the city didn't know what, if anything, the company was selling for profit or simply dumping in the landfill. At the time of that report, Puckett discounted the newspaper's findings, saying she had confidence in the company.

A report filed by the city auditor in June raised similar questions about the company's operations.

"Internal controls, to reasonable [sic] ensure accurate recording of City recyclables collected, are minimal," the report says. "Recyclable collections could be charged to the City that were collected elsewhere. Collection trucks could weigh in and then leave without unloading and later return and reweigh the same load. We saw no control that would reasonably prevent this possibility."

Since that report was given to Puckett and members of the city council, city officials have talked to Community Waste Disposal about making changes to tighten up controls. The city asked the company to relocate the scales so that trucks would be weighed as soon as they arrived at the facility, but CWD said that would be too expensive and unsafe.

"Our sanitation folks thought that the auditor's recommendation to put in very expensive equipment wasn't justified at this time primarily because they almost cut CWD's funding in this year's budget," says Mayor Laura Miller. "I have no expectation that CWD would go in and put any money into their program since they almost lost all of their funding this year."

Miller's newly formed recycling task force recently began meeting and has until March to come up with a new plan for a citywide recycling program. Right now, about 232,000 city residents who pay a water bill also pay between $8 and $15 a year for curbside recycling even if they never use it, and most of the city's poor don't use it, even CWD's records indicate. Miller says her assumption is that the task force will probably come up with a more equitable system that bills residents based on how much they choose to recycle. She says the city is looking at "totally revamping" what they are doing, and the future may or may not involve CWD.

"CWD is a nonvoting member of the recycling task force...They are there as resource people to give information about what could or could not work. I'm sure that at the end of the day, whatever we recommend, they're hoping to be a part of it, but there is no guarantee they'd be a part of it. If we come up with a recycling program and they don't have the equipment to do it and they don't want to invest in the equipment, then we'd have to go to another company."

The company has promised to reprogram its computers next month to more accurately track loads and to "flag" those that appear questionable. The city will occasionally check in on the company, Puckett says. The city still has no way of knowing for sure who is participating in the curbside program or how much the company actually picks up, sells or takes to the garbage dump, and there are no plans to find out, she says.

Standing in the sunshine just out from under the protection of the new recycling center's metal roof, Puckett says she remains ever confident in Community Waste Disposal and has no reason to question its practices. She says she is also confident that the computer programming changes will address concerns.

"Do I trust them?" Puckett says. "Yes, I do...They have not given me any reason to distrust them."


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