MANAGEMENT: Rural Managers Struggle With Regs, Funding

High capital and operating costs, insufficient funding and a poor understanding of new environmental regulations currently top the list of problems in rural waste management, according to a survey conducted by the Coastal Georgia Regional Development Center (CGRDC), Brunswick, Ga., and the Solid Waste Association of North America, Silver Spring, Md. Other areas of concern include daily operations, public relations, opposition to new facility sitings, law suits, recycling markets, unfunded legislative mandates, landfill erosion control and meeting state regulations.

In the study, "rural" refers to counties with a population of less than 35,000. CGRDC compared two rural waste management approaches: regional planning agencies and counties acting alone. Although counties and regional agencies differ widely in their management practices, they face many similar issues. For example, for both counties and regional agencies, new state and federal regulations have had dramatic effects on landfill siting, design and closure; operational planning; program budgets; and waste reduction and recycling initiatives.

Landfilling, currently the most prevalent method of solid waste disposal in rural areas, is in a period of transition. For example, approximately 40 percent of county and regional respondents expect early landfill closure as a result of Subtitle D regulations. In addition, landfill siting is becoming as volatile an issue in rural areas as it is in urban areas. Due to siting opposition and the substantial costs-per-acre for constructing modern landfills, an increase of regionalized landfill facilities is expected, according to survey respondents. Regional landfills offer more extensive environmental monitoring programs and protection systems than county landfills (see top bar graph), the survey reported.

With 21 percent of county respondents participating in a multi-county solid waste management program and another 38 percent reportedly moving in that direction, it is evident that rural America is taking a regional approach to solid waste management.

Meanwhile, exporting waste is a common method for many rural counties. For example, counties currently export 76 percent of their waste to other counties and 56 percent to other states. Exporting waste also is the top choice for counties anticipating landfill closures. Other alternative strategies include conserving landfill space by initiating or increasing recycling and composting programs (39 percent) and siting a new landfill within the county (33 percent).

In comparison, at the regional level, conserving landfill space is the primary strategy while siting a new landfill within the region is the second choice.

The cost of new facilities, combined with rural communities' limited financial resources, creates a major economic problem. Consequently, funds must be allocated judiciously (see bottom bar graph). Currently, 60 percent of counties' solid waste funds (49 percent for regions) is allocated to landfilling. Collection and general overhead represent the second and third highest expenses for counties while general overhead and recycling top the list for regions.

On the whole, these programs are funded by user fees, which most likely are generated from tipping fees. General funds are the second source of money and enterprise funds are rarely used.

The surveyed rural solid waste managers and local governments said that they need assistance in interpreting and implementing new state and federal regulations. Other areas where they lack assistance include: * Evaluating the myriad of solid waste alternatives and creating an integrated management system;

* Developing effective local leadership;

* Evaluating the appropriateness of private or public ownership;

* Designing facilities and monitoring systems;

* Addressing legal issues; and

* Developing more effective public education and involvement programs.

Rural collection services primarily are provided by the private sector, although some counties rely on drop-off boxes. Regional agencies use transfer stations and unstaffed drop-off boxes to collect recyclables. Counties average a recycling rate of 12 percent while regional programs average 10 percent, the survey reported. In addition, rural counties compost 8 percent of their solid waste stream, compared to 3 percent for regional waste streams.

The CGRDC, a regional planning agency serving eight rural counties along Georgia's Atlantic Coast, surveyed more than 1,300 county solid waste managers and 130 regional planning agencies in rural areas nationwide.

For more information on the survey, compiled in the CGRDC's Solid Waste Management User Guide, contact: Vernon Martin, Executive Director, CGRDC, P.O. Box 1917, Brunswick, Ga. 31521.