Richard Fintak, a grossly negligent owner of a waste transfer station in Franklin County, Ohio, has earned the ire of nearby residents and taxpayers, and deservedly so. But the people howling the loudest over Fintak’s actions should be others in the waste industry. Although they may not have been personally harmed by his failures — indeed, they may benefit in the short term from the loss of competition — in the long run, he’ll do more harm to the industry than any individual NIMBY activist ever could.
Fintak’s story begins in 2009, when he purchased a financially struggling transfer station for construction and demolition materials. He quickly discovered that it was far easier to skip the “transfer” part of the equation, and simply allowed people to dump their waste for an under-the-table cash fee. He also began accepting waste of any stripe; not just C&D materials, but whatever the customer needed to get rid of. What had previously been a small-scale transfer station for construction debris grew into a 30-foot-high grab-bag of waste with a one-acre footprint. At its worst, 21,000 cubic yards of waste piled up at a site that was never capable or licensed to handle the load.
Inevitably, the site began attracting the attention of the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Franklin County Public Health. The agencies provided numerous warnings to Fintak, which went unheeded. Finally, the Franklin County sheriff’s office issued a warrant for his arrest in April 2010. Fintak fled to Indiana and wasn’t extradited back to Ohio until July 2011. At the time of his arrest, he was in the process of recruiting customers for a new potentially illegal dumping site.
Fintak pleaded guilty last November to one count each of open dumping, operating an illegal solid waste facility and operating an illegal landfill or transfer station, all felonies. He was given four months to clean up the site and avoid jail time, but when the deadline arrived, the judge found the site untouched and Fintak full of promises that he was just lining up a contractor. Fed up with the delays and the excuses, he sentenced Fintak to three years of jail time. Fintak qualified for early release after five months served. Just recently, a plan to clean up the site has been approved by local, state and federal authorities, who will all chip in for the $377,000 in cleanup costs after Fintak claimed he didn’t have the money to do so himself.
Fintak’s story is worlds away from that of most professional, respectable members of the waste industry, who play by the rules and take pride in doing their job well. But it’s important to understand that fly-by-night operators like this do enormous damage to the credibility of our industry. The average person will lump all landfill and transfer station operators together, and associate every one with the misdeeds of the worst individuals. When picturing a transfer station, the average taxpayer in the area will picture Fintak’s garbage heap instead of the clean, efficient facility that provides a valuable service to the community. And when the next firm tries to propose a landfill or transfer station to serve the county’s waste disposal needs, NIMBY sentiment will be stronger and louder than it ever would have been otherwise. Elected officials, already wary of waste facilities, will be even more reluctant to approve proposals for fear of greenlighting the next disaster.
This episode also highlights the positive side of government action. It is true that waste facilities are often subject to excessive delays and red tape. In fact, we’re often called upon to help projects navigate byzantine layers of bureaucracy. But sometimes, basic levels of intervention can protect the industry from rogue players and nip problems in the bud before they can spiral out of control. Perhaps if public health authorities had stepped in sooner, Richard Fintak’s catastrophe of a dumpsite could have been prevented from going as far as it did, and the waste industry in Ohio would never have to deal with the backlash from his mistakes.