Panel and I, The

In Dec. 1999, I became a member of Washington, D.C.'s “Solid Waste Transfer Facility Site Selection Advisory Panel.” Our goal was to resolve, once and for all, the location of transfer stations in Washington.

Transfer stations have been controversial in Washington for years. The heat intensified in the early '90s. The District had failed to maintain its two transfer stations, leaving them in bad shape. To conserve its ability to handle residential trash, the District closed its transfer stations to private haulers. Some of the haulers responded by building transfer stations in areas zoned for industrial or commercial use. In some cases, these areas abutted residentially zoned neighborhoods.

“I was the only private sector representative on the [transfer station siting] panel. I knew I was in for a good time when a local activist called me ‘the interloper’ during our first public meeting.”

During the next 12 months, the panel struggled to find suitable transfer station locations. Washington is a densely populated city without large, empty sites that are far from neighbors. I wasn't convinced we needed a 5- or 10-acre lot, but to the other panel members, the bigger and more isolated the site, the better.

I was the only private sector representative on the panel. I knew I was in for a good time when a local activist called me “the interloper” during our first public meeting.

And then there were the rats. Two big plastic rats appeared on our conference tables at one of our first panel meetings. They stayed for the duration. Transfer stations often were blamed as the source of rats in Washington. At times, I thought that some of my fellow panel members believed that the private sector waste industry invented rats in its secret laboratories.

Fortunately, we learned how to disagree with each other without being disagreeable with each other. And we learned to tolerate our inconsistencies. For instance, several panel members felt that garbage from Maryland and Virginia should not be sent to transfer stations in the District. They were equally adamant that Washington should be allowed to send its trash to other states for disposal because it has no landfills or incinerators. Some could denounce the environmental hazards of operating an incinerator in Washington, while raising no objection to sending residential garbage to a Virginia incinerator.

Perhaps the most bizarre comment, however, came at our last public meeting. Even though the majority of Washingtonians are black, our panel was composed of four blacks and five whites. In response to a question about the panel's racial composition, one member insisted we really were four blacks, four whites and one private sector industry representative. I know what he meant to say, but as I heard him, I tried to remember if I had seen that racial or ethnic category on my census form.

After a year of scrutinizing and debating, we released our report. I didn't agree with our site selections. For reasons beyond the panel's control, we were forced to rush to judgment. We ended up identifying large sites but not determining their suitability for transfer stations. But what we selected and why is the subject of another column.

The columnist is director, state programs for the Environmental Industry Associations, Washington, D.C.

Opinions in this column do not necessarily reflect the National Solid Wastes Management Associations or the Environmental Industry Associations. E-mail the author at: