A short time with SPSA

Published 9:34 pm Thursday, March 10, 2016

With a little more than a year and a half before the expiration of the operating agreements that formed and govern the Southeastern Public Service Authority, the region’s waste disposal agency, the eight member localities are scurrying to determine how they will dispose of their garbage after 2018. Unfortunately, it’s clear most of Suffolk’s partners in SPSA continue to look at this city as little more than a place to dump their trash.

During a meeting last week, SPSA’s governing board voted to pursue a contract with RePower South to operate a facility that would turn most of the region’s trash into plastic pellets, which would be sold to utility customers as an alternative to coal as fuel supply. The board also voted to approve the form of the new use and support agreements, which the city council or board of supervisors of each member locality will now consider separately.

Neither decision would be especially alarming on its own. But the SPSA board has skipped a vital step in the process, one that caused Suffolk’s representatives on the board — City Manager Patrick Roberts and private attorney Dave Arnold — to vote against both proposals.

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The crux of the problem for Suffolk is the landfill SPSA operates here. Under the terms of the organizing agreement for the authority, Suffolk is able to use the landfill at no cost, a benefit it receives in exchange for hosting the landfill and shouldering the burden of added traffic on U.S. 58, along with landfill odors and garbage alongside the roads, not to mention the environmental risks associated with a trash dump.

Other member localities, which pay as much as $125 per ton for their trash, have long been frustrated by that deal, and they’ve made it clear they do not expect Suffolk to receive such a benefit under the new agreements. In fact, their vote last week omitted any mention of a host benefit for Suffolk.

That omission is especially galling in light of the fact that trash disposal in the landfill would be SPSA’s Plan B if the untested RePower plan were to flop for some reason. Without a host agreement that gives Suffolk some break on the cost of disposal, the new operational agreements would have the city take on all the risks and burdens of hosting the landfill without giving it any benefit for having done so.

The snub is obvious in light of Roberts’ revelation after the meeting that SPSA has yet to even make an application with Suffolk City Council for the right to expand the landfill. In other words, the authority’s board is assuming Suffolk will expand the regional landfill whenever it’s called to do so, an imposition the city could be forced to accommodate if it blindly agreed to the new operational agreements.

RePower has made an interesting proposal, and Suffolk’s sister communities in Hampton Roads stand to save a lot of money if that proposal can be successfully implemented. But Suffolk’s decision to stay with SPSA or break away and pursue its own solid-waste solution should not be influenced by the benefits the rest of Hampton Roads would receive from that implementation.

Suffolk officials must begin to consider the likelihood that the city’s future with the Southeastern Public Service Authority is a short one. It has become abundantly clear that the other members of that authority have little regard for the sacrifice Suffolk has made to host the regional landfill for the past couple of decades. It’s time for the city to look out for its own interests.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This editorial was updated to correct the reference to “wood pellets” being created under the RePower proposal. The pellets will be made from plastics and polymers reclaimed from the waste stream.