Life After Carbone

As we approach the first anniversary of the Supreme Court's Car-bone waste flow control decision, trends in legislation, waste transfer and finance are emerging. These trends are subtle but clearly measurable and they will become more pronounced as the Car-bone decision matures into its second year.

Initially, private service providers were slow to take advantage of the decision. Many attribute this delayed reaction to ex-pectations that waste flow control legislation would be passed in Congress. In-deed, in October 1994, the pro waste flow control coalition was one vote shy of passing a bill. Then, as winter advanced and the new Congress was sworn in, the coalition's success was diminished. Although the debate has recommenced, it is doubtful that 1994's broad-based coalition will hold to-gether in 1995. And current legislative interest on the Hill is even less supportive than it was in 1994. Pas-sage of waste flow control legislation is a definite possibility, but it will be much more restrictive than last year's proposed bill.

Another reason private service providers have been slow to attack flow control is the need for systems to transfer large volumes of municipal solid waste to the mega-landfills owned by a few companies. This re-quires siting and constructing transfer stations as well as a transport sub-system to move the captured solid waste away from integrated waste flow control systems. Now, with the dawning of spring, like the first budding of trees, these transportation sub-systems are beginning to emerge in certain areas of the United States.

In addition to setting up transfer systems, private service providers must re-shape political thinking and convince locally elected officials to embrace long-distance hauling to mega-landfills and to abandon the integrated approach to municipal solid waste management. While this is far more subtle than constructing transfer stations, it is more important. Winning the minds of policy makers is a greater accomplishment than simply purchasing trucks and concrete for a transport sub-system. Many elected officials interpret the electorate's demands for a diminished government role at all levels to encompass everything that affects their lives, including environmental issues.

Another key factor is the degree to which Carbone af-fects debt. So far, the owners and operators of local government systems that depend on waste flow control have found ways to pay their bills in the short term, even though revenue streams have begun to diminish. These steps, however, are indeed short-term. As the second and third year of life after Car-bone come and go, this will become im-possible. We now see that the bond market merchant princes/princesses have begun to downgrade the value of bonds that are dependent on waste flow control. This is only the beginning - watch out for many more downgradings as the years pass.

So, while the trends to measure the impact of the Carbone decision are not dramatic, they are apparent. Private service providers will become more aggressive, taking steps to pass state legislation that pre-empts local gov- ernments' role. More municipal solid waste will be on the interstates headed to mega-landfills. In addition, more municipal operations will find it necessary to drop certain services or to require rate-payers to de-cide what level of integrated municipal solid waste management they really want.

What is going to be the ultimate result of the Carbone decision? If legislation is passed, very few local governments will benefit from it. The ability of private service providers to make their case in the Congress will assure a very narrow door for a few local governments to slip through.

The vast majority of local governments will have to make some hard decisions on their present and future role in municipal solid waste management. In those jurisdictions where the minds and hearts of the policy makers have been bought, local governments will withdraw from the de-bate. In other jurisdictions, local governments will de-cide to compete in the marketplace and begin collecting all of the municipal solid waste stream - in other words, he or she who picks up the solid waste owns the solid waste. In other jurisdictions, bill-payment systems will change dramatically.

Rate payers will foot the bill for the costs of integrated systems; tipping fees at facilities owned by local governments will drop in order to compete with the huge mega-landfills that have been built recently. Finally, several billion dollars of bonds will probably go to hell in a handbasket.

The realities of Carbone are very clear: the future of solid waste management will be nothing like its past. Despite this, in the long-run the trash will still be managed, collected and disposed - at about the same costs as today.