Free Day at the Landfill

The challenge of dealing with garbage in the Elkins area has been a simmering caldron waiting to explode over the last quarter century. It is about ready to now.

The Elkins landfill is full. It can take no more trash. It had to be closed. If it continued to accept trash for which there was no room it would be in violation of Department of Environmental Protection regulations.

This in itself is not unreasonable. Any container, whether a small bottle or a great gorge, being filled will eventually become full. The question is, how did we get in such a mess and what do we do about it now?

In the early 1990s numerous changes were made both nationally and in the state on dealing with society’s waste. Many of the landfills which were in operation at that time were substandard or shortly would become substandard as new technology was introduced. Taking a leadership role the State of West Virginia offered to assume responsibility for obsolete landfills to save counties and municipalities the costs of dealing with them. Many cities around the state opted to transfer responsibility for their obsolete operations to the state.

For whatever reason the City of Elkins decided not to take advantage of this opportunity and instead insisted on keeping the facility and all the liabilities that went with it.

However, whatever optimistic interpretation of the economic potential of the landfill might have been originally projected was soon shot down with the need to come into compliance with the newly emergent and continually changing environmental regulations.

Besides the requirement for greatly improved technology which revenues from tipping fees were inadequate to cover was the onerous burden of “Free Day.” The objectives of this new policy from Charleston were no doubt quite valid: Provide a day in which any one could go once a month and dump their trash and there would be no charge.

The idea behind this Noble Experiment was that it would keep our state much cleaner because now trash would not go over the hillside somewhere but would instead be properly disposed of in the landfill. As we all know, of course, there is no such thing as “free day.” Somebody, somewhere will eventually have to pay.

Before long, “Free Day” became the busiest day of the month at the landfill. And the citizens of Elkins became responsible for lots of people’s garbage. Because of its location, “Free Day” drew numerous folks who could dump without charge. Since there is an absence of effective mandatory pickup throughout Randolph County, other than in Elkins and Mill Creek, this became a city subsidized dumping ground for county citizens. The city even worked out a receipt system with the county commission so people had proof of legally getting rid of their garbage. “Free Day” also soon attracted dumpers from Tucker, Barbour and Upshur counties.

“Free Day” emerged as a replicate of “Alice in Wonderland” as people got to know each other while waiting in the often long lines. The event became a multi-county social occasion.

In addition to “Free Day” there was substantial evidence of people from outside the city dumping in city dumpsters and along collection routes all of which added to landfill costs.

Meanwhile, the citizens of Elkins were left trying to find ways to keep the party afloat. So they raised tipping fees to those customers who were paying. Because of the increasing fees those paying customers who did remain were eventually forced away. It became cheaper to haul to dumps in Tucker and Harrison counties. That left only the City of Elkins Sanitation Department to carry the costs.

That department was now caught in a situation where it needed to take as much trash as possible to the landfill so that the grand total of the tipping fees would be enough to carry the cost of the operation. This meant that trash which should have been recycled – such as cans, newspaper, plastic, etc. – went to the landfill. Now the landfill is being filled up even faster until eventually by January 2012 it could take no more.

A reluctance to raise garbage fees to carry such an operation led previous city administrators to borrow willy-nilly from various revenue accounts (a process which is contrary to state code) and the landfill could be kept afloat. The “Free Day” Party could continue, but only to that point where the landfill became full.

The funds for closing the defunct landfill must come from somewhere. Clearly the garbage which went into it came from far beyond the city limits of Elkins. Although exact figures may never be available the precision, integrity and competence exhibited by Elkins Treasurer Lisa Daniels-Smith should permit her to come up with a fairly accurate estimate of how much went into the landfill from outside sources.

To impose the entire burden on the citizens of Elkins hardly seems fair considering the substantial volume of trash coming from various jurisdictions. Any solutions for the financial challenges should include involvement of the Randolph County Commission and perhaps even the commissions from Tucker, Barbour, and Upshur counties as well as the State of West Virginia.

It is with a great deal of reluctance that I offer the next part of this story. During my tenure on city council and as mayor I continually received unsubstantiated accounts of irregularities, corruption and misdoings associated with garbage collection and the landfill. Although I discussed these informally with various administrative officers, council members, the press, and even the auditors, I never felt sufficiently comfortable with the information at hand to go to the police or prosecuting attorney.

However, in light of the massive deficits facing the city associated with the landfill, I now feel that is it time for a full-scale criminal investigation of practices surrounding garbage collection and the landfill.

Hopefully, the investigation would result with no evidence of wrongdoing and citizens could be assured that the problems stem from poor decision-making rather than misconduct.