Collecting Few and Far Between

Imagine trying to provide refuse collection and transfer services to an area where the winter temperatures regularly approach freezing and the summer temperatures can hit 115 degrees.

Imagine a place where last week's road becomes this week's wash-out, where you can see your next customer a hundred yards away but have to drive a mile of dirt roads to get there and where broken axles and plugged radiators are just the normal wear-and-tear.

Welcome to daily refuse operations in San Bernardino County, Calif.'s desert areas, a far-flung expanse of Joshua trees, century plants and white-brown sand. At 20,000 square miles, San Bernardino County is the largest county in the lower 48 states. In fact, most of the New England states would fit within the county's boundaries, which stretch from the Arizona and Nevada borders to the fringes of metro Los Angeles.

The county is divided into four distinct geographic areas, which include high desert, low desert, mountain and valley. While the majority of the county's two million people live in the densely populated valley and mountain areas, the remaining 90 percent of the county's desert environment is a daily challenge for both collection equipment and personnel.

But geography is only half of the county's service obstacles. Because most refuse collection services are not mandatory, haulers face low-density area service levels, and the county must provide self-haul facilities for residents.

A Far-Flung System Currently, the desert population produces about 20,000 tons per month (tpm), with 15,000 tons direct-hauled to the three principal landfills located at Barstow, Landers and Victorville. An additional 5,000 tons come through transfer stations in Lucerne Valley, Morongo Valley, Phelan and Twenty-nine Palms, or collection centers located at the closed landfills in Apple Valley and Hesperia.

During the past three years, the county has been realigning its system, primarily closing landfills handling 100 tons or less per day. "[It] looked like a landfill in every backyard - fairly rural with a lot of self-haul," says Gerry Newcombe, contract administrator for the county's waste system division. "We're changing that slowly as we begin to close those small-volume sites, build transfer stations and focus on regional sites."

This evolution has not been without pain or controversy. In late 1995, the county privatized its landfill planning, engineering and operations system while retaining contract management.

The county had an existing contract with Norcal/San Bernardino Inc. to manage and operate its high-volume landfills that operated primarily in the populous valley region. This contract was renegotiated to include the remaining system, which consisted primarily of the low-volume landfills across the desert and mountain areas.

Norcal then began working on a joint partnership plan that was developed by the county and its cities. To remain competitive in Southern California's changing landfill market, the county and Norcal knew they needed to reduce operational costs and improve efficiency.

The major issues facing the system are distance, volume and inflexible landfill regulations. Because the cost of business revolves around these factors, the fewer tons per day disposed, the higher each ton costs, Newcombe concludes. "Transferring is the right solution, but we always are fighting low waste volumes over large distances."

Consequently, the county and Norcal built transfer stations at four of the closed landfill sites and set up community collection centers at two of the other sites. The collection centers are fenced and graded with a group of 3- or 4-yard front-loading refuse bins. A local hauler services these bins twice a day and trucks the waste to a disposal or transfer site.

The collection centers are manned during the day. "If you just leave them unmanned, hazardous materials, couches or refrigerators tend to be left at the site," Newcombe says. Although some illegal dumping occurs occasionally during off-hours, Newcombe says this "hasn't been too much of a problem yet."

Public feedback has been positive, says Bob Bradford, Norcal's operations manager. "A lot of people were anxious and apprehensive about closing the [nearby] landfill, but once it happened, the reaction has been good. They like the transfer stations because their cars don't get as dirty, they don't have to go out in the mud and wind, and they don't get as many flat tires."

Controlling Collection One of the greatest challenges facing haulers in San Bernardino is developing a route that maximizes each load and minimizes the travel time required to fill the load. Historically, one hauler provided all collection services in some areas, but in the denser, unincorporated communities, two or more haulers were competing for the same limited customer base.

San Bernardino needed a better managed collection system. So, in October 1996, the county decided to franchise the unincorporated areas.

By May 1998, the county signed 14 franchise agreements and expects to end up with 20 franchises. Now, haulers are accountable to the county for service and rate levels, and they offer recycling programs where feasible.

The agreement terms and the franchise fees were the biggest issues during these negotiations, Newcombe says. "We ended up with a fixed, seven-year initial term with a five-year option that would be automatic unless the county decided not to renew the agreement," he says.

The haulers originally wanted "evergreen" agreements with at least five years always remaining on the agreement. "We disagreed with that, and eventually were successful in negotiating this fixed term with an option period," Newcombe says.

As part of the negotiations, the county also had to resolve territory issues and trade accounts between haulers to ensure a similar customer base. "We've made sure that nobody lost or gained anything at the expense of one of the other companies by signing a franchise agreement," Newcombe says. "The haulers have been cooperative in giving the customer-base information."

The Customer is Where? It's common to find residential customers living on 40-acre parcels, and along unpaved roads in San Bernardino. Even though the next stop is only a few hundred yards away, a hauler might have to drive several miles to service that pick-up.

Calif.-based Sierra Environmental Services collects refuse from 3,200 residential and 1,400 commercial customers in Twentynine Palms where it is headquartered. It also services several hundred square miles, including communities right off Route 66: Amboy, Cadiz, Essex, Kelso and Ludlow. Customer density is five customers per square mile in some areas, and a single driver may travel 350 miles just to pick up 50 stops. In such far-flung areas, collection is done by bin service.

One way Sierra remains cost-competitive is to service these customers every other week. "Many of these people are retired, fixed-income customers, so we have to be sensitive to the prices [charged]," says Gary Koontz, one of Sierra's owners.

Providing an efficient, low-cost recycling program to Sierra's customers is another issue. "We haven't figured out a good way to do that," Koontz admits. "Sending a second truck out on these routes to collect recyclables is expensive." He says that neither the company nor the residents want to absorb the extra costs.

To solve this problem, Sierra set up a bin at its office for customers to drop off their recyclables when they come to town.

Twentynine Palm's road system presents yet another challenge. "We have a lot of breakdowns on the dirt roads," Koontz says. "Trucks get stuck, and we have to pull them out." During the winter, rain adds to the difficulty. In some cases, entire roads will wash out, stranding customers.

"We have some customers with low entryways at the front of their property who actually have separate roads for us to use around these gates," he continues. "We drive in, stab the bin and then have to back out a couple of hundred feet. It's dangerous, but there's no other way to service these properties."

On the county's west side, CR&R, Perris, Calif., collects from Baldy Mesa, Phelan and Pinion Hills communities, which are located on the northern slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, and services the ski resort at Wrightwood.

CR&R's territory covers about 55 square miles and extends to the Los Angeles County line and to the city of Lancaster, Calif.

In addition to contending with persistent desert winds, CR&R faces a 3,000-foot elevation change from the high desert to Wrightwood and consequently, varying snow levels.

"You have vacation homes [there], which means a lot of people are present only on the weekends," says David Fahrion, CR&R's president. "[Often] during the winter, we have to chain the trucks up to go into the mountain areas."

This terrain makes it difficult for drivers to learn their routes. "On a metropolitan route, you can train a driver within three weeks," Fahrion says. "On our routes, it's anywhere from six to eight weeks because the areas aren't easily identifiable.

"In many cases, there aren't even street signs. It's 'Go down to the fourth cactus, make a right, go up to the third fire hydrant and turn left.'"

And a road used to reach a stop last week often will be washed away the following week, Fahrion says.

The biggest operational challenge for both CR&R and Sierra is the effect the service areas have on their trucks. Broken axles, blown tires and busted springs are common on the washboard road surfaces, but the windblown dust and sand wreak the most havoc.

"We are dealing with very high temperatures in the summer, and the radiators get filled with dust from the road if we don't clean them every day," says Sierra's Koontz.

Fahrion, who schedules preventive maintenance on his trucks' cooling system in the spring, says that "there are certain engines that won't cool down enough between stops. The equipment we spec has the ability to cool down relatively rapidly when you're moving between homes."

Both companies' trucks include communication equipment for emergencies.

"If they break down, it will be in one of these rural areas off the main roads," Koontz says. "Just trying to get out there and find these guys is a challenge."

While CR&R uses two-way radio systems to communicate with a stranded driver, Sierra resorts to cellular phones because of the dead radio areas.

The cellular phones provide clear lines of communication but are more expensive than radio systems, Koontz notes.

Despite the operational difficulties, customer service remains the top priority for both companies.

Both Fahrion and Koontz agree that providing quality service economically under these desert conditions is difficult.

"Are we making a lot of money on that service?" Koontz asks. "I seriously doubt it, but it is necessary to provide some sort of service to these people to assist in controlling illegal dumping and to keep the desert as clean as possible. Considering the conditions we're dealing with, the system out there works very well."

"Customers know that if it rains a couple of inches, it will be difficult for us to get [to their property]," Fahrion says. "Many times, we have to call a block of customers because a driver can't get into their area."

But the haulers must be doing a fairly good job - business is growing, he adds.

"That's a testimony that we have figured out a way to provide [customers] extraordinary sservice at a reasonable cost."