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Commentary: Steele: The messy nature of garbage policy

Updated: April 23, 2013 12:21PM



The recent cancellation by the Lake County Solid Waste Management District of the contract with Powers Energy to operate a trash-to-ethanol plant in southern Lake County is reminiscent of the landfill process the district went through in the 1990s, which ended with the cancellation of a contract, and lawsuits.

Whether the current ordeal ends in the courts remains to be seen.

It seems that these are problems with the policy-making structure as much as anything. The waste district is dominated by very few people at any given time, doing relatively routine business.

But it represents the entire county, with the county’s very difficult economic, political and social diversity. As long as the business is routine, it’s not a big deal.

But when it comes to big decisions — landfills or ethanol plants — it can take a very long time for big decisions to filter through the policymaking system, from those few people involved at the top to the full board, to the municpalities, to the residents.

The process is, to put it simply, reversed: there’s a contract for a huge landfill, then there’s the political debate; there’s a contract for a trash-to-ethanol plant, then there’s a political debate.

The landfill was very much an environmental debate. There was a not-in-my-backyard aspect to it, but the proposed Hickory Hills landfill was just so big and the grassroots protest against it made so much sense that ultimately the very body that had decided on the landfill changed its position.

The contract was revoked, and the lawyers took over.

The ethanol plant is different in the sense that there’s not a significant grassroots protest, but rather a general sense ranging from disinterestedness to discomfort. People who argued against the plant didn’t so much win as they didn’t lose.

A vote to cancel a contract is a defining moment legally, and perhaps the lawyers will be brought in to clean up the details, but politically the plant failed because it never got started.

With a project like this, the entire issue is risk. And risk is defined in terms of dollars. No one wanted to risk their money, so the project didn’t get done.

For the landfill, the backwardness was in entering a contract before the impact on the landscape was processed and accepted by the public. For the ethanol plant, the contract was entered before the risk had been accepted by anyone.

Sometimes that’s just the nature of government, which often, and by intent, works in fits and starts. But it’s also partly a matter of the decision-making structure.

There’s a terribly large amount of money in the garbage business, and a very loosely constructed decision-making structure that together contribute to a degree of contention, both political and legal, that often accompany big decisions.



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