Garbage game

Is Recology fudging the figures on how much SF waste is being diverted from the landfill, with the complicity of city officials?

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San Francisco elected officials frequently celebrate the ambitious citywide goal of sending zero waste to the landfill by 2020, an environmental feat widely viewed as attainable since the current waste diversion rate stands at a stellar 80 percent.

Official city numbers — based on reporting by Recology, a company that has a monopoly on trash collection and curbside recycling in San Francisco — demonstrate that only 20 percent of all city dwellers' trash ends up in a landfill, that unenlightened dead end for matter discarded from our lives, never to be reprocessed.

Yet a lawsuit against Recology exposed some inconsistencies in the company's record keeping. It also shed light on how some material counted as "diverted" is routinely sent to a landfill anyway, a practice that muddies the concept of the city's Zero Waste program but is nevertheless legal under state law.

On June 17, a San Francisco jury determined that Recology misrepresented the amount of waste diverted from the landfill in 2008, enabling it to collect an incentive payment of $1.36 million for meeting the goal. The verdict compels Recology to pay the money back to the city, since it was obtained after submitting a false claim.

The outcome of this lawsuit — brought by a former manager of the Tunnel Road recycling Buy Back facility, who also claims he was retaliated against for trying to expose fraud — highlights some larger questions. Was this inaccuracy unique to 2008, or are Recology's numbers always a little fuzzy? Are there adequate safeguards in place to prevent the company from fudging the numbers, particularly when both company and city officials have an incentive to exaggerate the diversion rate? And if what's on paper doesn't quite square with reality, is San Francisco really keeping as much garbage out of the landfill as the city's Department of the Environment says it is?

Attorney David Anton, who represented the former Recology employee, Brian McVeigh, said he found it odd that San Francisco officials didn't show much interest in collaborating to recover the bonus money, even though millions of dollars was potentially at stake. Since damages are trebled under the False Claims Act, cited in the lawsuit, Recology could ultimately be made to fork over the incentive payment three times over.

"The city's representative in the Department of the Environment actually testified that he hoped this lawsuit would be unsuccessful," Anton recounted. He guessed that officials remained on the sidelines because in San Francisco's political power centers, "relationships with Recology are so close and tight. It was a very strange thing," he went on, "to be pursuing this lawsuit, trying to get money to the city, and the city's representatives are saying, 'we don't want it.'"

Recology has filed post-trial motions in a bid to have the penalty reduced, "asking the court to decide whether there was any evidence at trial that there were public funds in the Diversion Incentive Account, and if so, how much," explained Recology spokesperson Eric Potashner. "We expect a ruling this summer."

Department of the Environment spokesperson Guillermo Rodriguez told the Guardian that Robert Haley, manager of the department's Zero Waste team, was unavailable for comment before press time. With regard to the lawsuit, Rodriguez noted, "The city has been following the trial closely and is awaiting the judge's ruling on post-trial motions before determining any reaction."

 

FALSE CLAIMS

The False Claims Act is designed to recover damages to government when false statements are made to obtain money or avoid making payments. It has a provision allowing whistleblowers, such as McVeigh, to lead the charge on seeking civil enforcement action. The whistleblower may be eligible to receive a share of recovery.

Comments

The rest of the political grandstanding against the ballot initiative to break the monopoly of recology was pure BS.

At least Judge Quentin Kopp and Tony Kelly stated the issue plainly.

Unfortunately we now all will deal with the political business of pay-back and a monopoly on the garbage systems in SF.

Posted by goodmaab50 on Jul. 09, 2014 @ 8:17 pm

since the city really really hates anyone offering an alternative to what they do.

And that, of course, is why city services are so bad. At least Recology is efficient at what it does. If only Muni, fixing the streets or getting building permits were that good.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 10, 2014 @ 7:19 am

The article says that a lot of what goes into the green compost bins actually gets sent to a landfill, rather than being composted. But then, when I look at the bins in my office in a large building downtown, and at the bins in local eateries, I see that a very high percentage of their contents is not actually compostable, since a lot of people don't really understand what is supposed to go in the different green, blue, and black bins, or don't really care. So I think a more important question is, what kind of procedures does Recology have for sorting out the different materials in the waste it receives, and how accurate are they? If a green or blue bin contains a lot of trash, do they have to dump the whole contents in the landfill? I think that we really need to know this in order to determine if Recology is meeting its claimed waste diversion numbers.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 9:46 am

the dumb errors of 800,000 people then your trash bill would be a grand a month.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 10:07 am

I think this article misrepresents what happens when Recology requests a rate increase. As a consultant in the waste industry, I have personally worked on close to 100 rate reviews for garbage haulers. The rate review process that Recology goes through in San Francisco is by far the most cumbersome (I have heard of) with private consultants doing the auditing, hundreds of exhibits and several hearings. So to suggest that Recology simply asks for an increase and simply receives it without scrutiny is just untrue.

Posted by Guest on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 10:33 am

twice what it was just twelve months ago, with no change of service.

How can that be reasonable?

Posted by Guest on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 10:50 am

Another great article on Recology by SFBG. There may be another great story begging to be written about how Recology plans to build a mega-landfill in Humboldt County, Nevada, just outside of Winnemucca over an active aquifer. They say they plan to ship, by rail, 4000 tons of Bay Area non-recycleable solid waste, 5-days a week for 95 years.

They have never mentioned they may need an environmental impact statement along the rail line from Ca. to the NV state line as they agreed to if they planned to ship SF waste to Yuba.

When they did not move their project ahead (blaming the uppity citizens of Winnemucca for the delay) on their 3-year conditional use permit (CUP), Humboldt County did not renew their CUP. Recology sued this county and won their CUP back, plus an extension.

The county hired landfill expert G. Fred Lee, Ph.D to evaluate the project before Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP---and oxymoronic name if there ever was one) approved Recology's final license for the landfill. Dr. Lee concluded the project will leave the state and county with with ruined water, and probable other public health issues.

And in spite of Dr. Lees Report, the NDEP approved the Recology Jungo Landfill Permit. The NDEP couldn't even get the company names right on the permit even tho this was pointed out to them multiple times during the public comment period(requiring an apology trip by Nevada state lawyers to Humboldt County). What's even worse in spite of many pictures being provided, NDEP claims this area never floods. So, no possible problems from flooding.

Two polls were done, in 2009 and in 2012 regarding whether or not the public wanted this landfill. Both polls basically mirrored the 09 results. 78% where opposed to the landfill. Non-partisan. In 2010, the voters even drove a ballot initiative to reduce the size of future landfills. They are told this won't stand.

Recology has had all the permits for about 6 years to build. Their original projection was that based on revenue sharing, Humboldt Cty might get $1 a ton. SHAMEFUL. And not worth the potential environmental risk or the few jobs/business this would provide in deeply entrenched gold mining country. However, Recology has still not negotiated a host agreement in good faith. They haven't started building. They have closed down their Winnemucca office. Many citizens hope it's over; but have no clue.

Another good story here? Many would love to see some more reporting on this face of Recology as SFBG has continued to do.

Posted by Tracy Austin on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 1:43 pm

Another great article on Recology by SFBG. There may be another great story begging to be written about how Recology plans to build a mega-landfill in Humboldt County, Nevada, just outside of Winnemucca over an active aquifer. They say they plan to ship, by rail, 4000 tons of Bay Area non-recycleable solid waste, 5-days a week for 95 years.

They have never mentioned they may need an environmental impact statement along the rail line from Ca. to the NV state line as they agreed to if they planned to ship SF waste to Yuba.

When they did not move their project ahead (blaming the uppity citizens of Winnemucca for the delay) on their 3-year conditional use permit (CUP), Humboldt County did not renew their CUP. Recology sued this county and won their CUP back, plus an extension.

The county hired landfill expert G. Fred Lee, Ph.D to evaluate the project before Nevada Department of Environmental Protection (NDEP---and oxymoronic name if there ever was one) approved Recology's final license for the landfill. Dr. Lee concluded the project will leave the state and county with with ruined water, and probable other public health issues.

And in spite of Dr. Lees Report, the NDEP approved the Recology Jungo Landfill Permit. The NDEP couldn't even get the company names right on the permit even tho this was pointed out to them multiple times during the public comment period(requiring an apology trip by Nevada state lawyers to Humboldt County). What's even worse in spite of many pictures being provided, NDEP claims this area never floods. So, no possible problems from flooding.

Two polls were done, in 2009 and in 2012 regarding whether or not the public wanted this landfill. Both polls basically mirrored the 09 results. 78% where opposed to the landfill. Non-partisan. In 2010, the voters even drove a ballot initiative to reduce the size of future landfills. They are told this won't stand.

Recology has had all the permits for about 6 years to build. Their original projection was that based on revenue sharing, Humboldt Cty might get $1 a ton. SHAMEFUL. And not worth the potential environmental risk or the few jobs/business this would provide in deeply entrenched gold mining country. However, Recology has still not negotiated a host agreement in good faith. They haven't started building. They have closed down their Winnemucca office. Many citizens hope it's over; but have no clue.

Another good story here? Many would love to see some more reporting on this face of Recology as SFBG has continued to do.

Posted by Tracy Austin on Jul. 11, 2014 @ 1:45 pm

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