Removing a great weight

Published 7:15 pm Saturday, May 1, 2010

With the announcement on Thursday that the Southeastern Public Service Authority had completed its sale of the Portsmouth waste-to-energy plant to Waste Management’s Wheelabrator Technologies Inc., at least one chapter of the sorry tale of Hampton Roads’ regional waste authority finally comes to a close.

The waste-to-energy plant was always supposed to be the primary money-making operation for SPSA, giving the authority a place to burn trash and sell the power created to other concerns, while at the same time diverting some of the municipal waste stream from the regional landfill in Suffolk.

With the current landfill cell filling up at an ever-quickening pace — and the expected cost of capping it and opening a new cell threatening to plunge the already-reeling authority further into debt — the reasons for selling the facility were clear. SPSA needed the $150 million from the sale to pay down a significant portion of its debt, and an agreement with Wheelabrator regarding the fate of municipal waste is expected to forestall the need for a new cell to be opened during the remaining life of the regional group’s founding charter, thereby saving the authority up to $50 million.

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The decision to sell the operation to Wheelabrator was one based on sound financial principles, a development that frankly has been unusual in an organization that has too often been driven by politics and too rarely by a realistic and dispassionate assessment of long-term fiscal consequences.

The agreement puts SPSA today in the position of being able to look to the future of waste management in Hampton Roads, instead of being forced to focus on past mismanagement and poor decisions.

With a new board comprising business and industrial leaders, instead of local politicians whose decisions were tied to their desire for reelection to city councils and boards of supervisors, the authority now has the opportunity to be proactive instead of reactive in its decision making, to do what’s right for both finances and the environment in Hampton Roads.

The answers to waste management problems in the area still are not likely to be cheap — not even for Suffolk, whose free ride on disposal fees will end with the expiration of SPSA’s founding contract in 2018. But getting the cash-strapped organization out of debt was a solid and necessary first step to setting its house in order that will have the added benefit of clearing the decks for frank discussions of what could and should transpire when that contract does expire.

It may be too early still to stop worrying about SPSA, but area residents can breathe a little easier today in the knowledge that a $200-million weight has been lifted from their shoulders.