Politics as Unusual?

When the 250,000 ton-per-day Perdido Landfill and its surrounding facilities in Escambia County, Fla., were placed on the auction block in 1995, keeping up with who won the bid would have given you whiplash.

The landfill, which originally was managed by the Escambia County Department of Environmental Resources Management (ECDERM), ran into trouble prior to 1993:

* Two states were investigating the landfill.

* State and federal regulatory investigations and enforcement actions were being initiated.

* The Florida Department of Environmental Protection (FDEP) had required compliance with state and federal regulations on stormwater, leachate, groundwater and operations management.

* Poor relations with the FDEP and other regulators delayed resolution to the difficulties facing the county.

By fall 1993, the FDEP concluded that sufficient progress was not being made. In response, the county conducted an environmental and operations audit of the landfill. After the audit, the county proposed a multi-year, corrective action plan to bring the landfill into compliance.

While approximately $8 million in improvements were approved in February 1994, county commissioners debated whether the county staff could effectively operate the landfill.

In 1995, the county commission issued a request for proposals to operate the landfill and its solid waste management facilities (which include a recycling facility, scalehouse, waste tire processing facility, yard waste processing facility and leachate management facilities).

It received proposals from the Escambia County Utilities Authority (ECUA), an autonomous, state-chartered authority that collects most of the county residential solid waste; Browning-Ferris Industries; and Waste Management of Florida, whose proposal was accepted.

Negotiations with WMI began in the spring of 1995 and continued for more than a year. However, several points of contention quickly emerged:

* WMI would not provide a fee estimate until the contract terms were final.

* Both sides agreed on a sliding scale tip fee, although the county would not agree to a "put-or-pay" contract, since it did not totally control the waste stream.

* WMI wanted a minimum eight-year contract with two five-year renewals, while the county wanted the right to terminate the contract after four years, without cause, by giving 180 days notice. WMI would not provide comprehensive warranties and indemnification unless the county agreed to the eight-year term.

Eventually, the contractual issues were resolved, and WMI submitted its payment schedule. However, the solid waste department concluded that the proposal would result in increased costs.

The county commission hired a financial management consultant to audit the landfill's finances.

When the consultant concluded that ECDERM's management would be the most cost-effective alternative, the county commission terminated discussions with WMI. Although the county reconsidered ECUA's proposals, it ultimately decided to remain with ECDERM's management.

In the fall of 1996, it looked like Perdido's management conundrum was over as the county hired a new ECDERM director and chief of landfill operations.

But ECDERM's efforts to maintain control were foiled again: Just a week before new commission members took their seats, the outgoing commissioners voted to contract the landfill's operations with WMI.

Once the new commissioners took their seats, however, they terminated the WMI contract and handed operations back to the county.

For ECDERM, this ending is a happy one: By 1997, the county had brought the site into compliance and continues to own and operate the Perdido landfill.