The Road To Regionalization

Like the road to hell, the road to regionalization is paved with good intentions. Unlike hell, regionalization can be a pleasant place to wind up. But some possible potholes can make the journey unpleasant.

Every community reaches a point where its current solid waste policies become inadequate. When examining the alternatives, the community realizes either that the costs, land requirements and solid waste flow needed are more than it can handle alone, or that the waste generated in one area can only be disposed in another jurisdiction. In order to solve the problem, cooperation is required from surrounding communities or other political entities - that need is the impetus for regionalization.

The first potholes on the road to regionalization start at the beginning. Who should make up the region? Only adjacent communities? Should it be an existing political boundary, such as a township, county or state? What about surrounding states or some other area defined by geography, common history or watershed? It could be all of these, and if the wrong criteria are used for inclusion, or exclusion, the amalgamation will come apart. The defining criteria will set the boundaries of the region. For instance, if the communities are within "X" miles from each other, anything outside of that distance would be excluded. Or criteria could include groups that are financially capable of building a waste-to-energy facility or a rail-haul complex. A geographical boundary, such as a drainage basin or valley, may be too small to finance a facility. Issues decided by a region may conflict with a neighboring region's plans. Deciding who has the authority to deal with the issues can help to decide the region's size.

The next problem grows out of the first: Who is in charge, and how much sovereignty is everyone in the region willing to subordinate to the regional authority? In some cases, authority may have to be transferred to the region from a larger one, such as the state or federal source. Since a council of equals can be a prescription for deadlock, or at least glacial movement on issues, the participants need to clearly spell out the structure, authorities and responsibilities of the regional authority. The agreement of the voters of the region, and keeping them informed of the decisions being made, is a critical factor in the success of the authority.

The largest pothole of all can occur if the concept disintegrates after it has been operating for a while. New regulations, based on new findings, can jeopardize a regional facility. Perhaps some of the old facilities could be up-graded and serve as a backup. New regulations, natural disasters or other factors may render the regional facility inoperative.

Large, regional facilities, by virtue of their size, may force competitive smaller operations to close, not for environmental reasons, but for economic ones. If a waste-to-energy facility, mammoth landfill or other project is a large component of the regionalization plan, all or most of the waste in the region must be sent there if it is to be economically viable.

Waste flow control is normally thought to be a preventive measure against overwhelming the host area with waste, but it also can mean the exclusion of alternative facilities and programs to benefit a regional facility. In San Diego County, Calif., officials are examining the termination of curbside recycling programs in local communities because they take needed recyclables away from a regional separation facility. Many cities realize too late that the dissolution of municipally-owned collection services, disposal facilities and other operations is virtually permanent. The cost of revitalizing, replacing and re-permitting is beyond the cities' capability, both economically and politically. Considering alternatives and a comprehensive plan of returning to de-regionalization, if needed, is a prudent safeguard.

Knowing that subsets exist within the larger structure also can help avoid hassle. Neighboring communities can ban together to economize on purchases, but a larger structure may be needed to address large disposal facility siting. Some issues may demand subdivisions within the region, while other issues require networking with regional groups. Insistence on monolithic agreement within the region can cause unneeded fractures.

Nothing said here is meant to criticize regionalization or any of its practitioners. It is meant to make us think about some of the points mentioned. When we work together, we are able to accomplish more than when we work individually. But it doesn't mean that individualism should be abandoned altogether. Regionalizing solid waste efforts has many benefits to offer, but some of the potential potholes might make pretty good landfills in their own right.