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Published 9:46 pm Thursday, February 24, 2011

What would a regional trash disposal authority do without a dump?

That’s one of the questions facing the governing board of the Southeastern Public Service Authority in the wake of the sale of its Portsmouth waste-to-energy plant to Wheelabrator Technologies. Now that the primary business of the Authority has changed, officials from the Authority are considering everything from closing the landfill to selling it. Incredibly, they’re even considering expanding it.

Under the agreement with Wheelabrator, the vast majority of waste generated in Hampton Roads now goes to Portsmouth to be burned and converted into electricity. Today, the Authority’s landfill in Suffolk is used only for construction and demolition debris.

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The elimination of household garbage from the waste stream resulted in a complete turnaround for the future of the regional landfill. Prior to the deal with Wheelabrator, the facility was filling up quickly, and officials expected they would have to open a new area to accommodate all of the garbage that SPSA’s eight member communities were expected to dump there prior to the planned dissolution of SPSA in 2018.

Now, however, there’s virtually no chance that Cell VII will be needed during that span of time. In fact, SPSA officials are working to figure out how to keep the existing landfill from operating at a loss, as the tipping fees the organization can reasonably charge for construction waste do not cover the cost of operating the facility. In fact, in order to get a bit closer to the break-even point, directors decided this week to cut back on the landfill’s hours of operation, schedule a public hearing to increase tipping fees and lay off more staffers.

All of which makes it extremely hard to understand why SPSA’s board of directors would still be thinking of spending $52 million to open the new landfill cell. But that’s exactly what they’re doing. A public hearing on the environmental aspects of that plan is set for March 31.

Considering that the sale to Wheelabrator cleared up more than half of the Authority’s outstanding debt, the regional waste authority is in better financial condition than it has been in years. But that doesn’t mean the authority should lose its fiscal sense once again. It will be hard enough to pay down the remaining debt before the planned 2018 dissolution date. Adding to that debt would be as fiscally irresponsible as were so many of the decisions that went into creating it.