Board is filled in on waste districts

No way to avoid failure, state says

Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality officials are not aware of a way they could have prevented the financial collapse of a regional solid waste district or could prevent another one in the future, an agency attorney told the Arkansas Pollution Control and Ecology Commission on Friday.

The department is spending $12.9 million to bail out the Ozark Mountain Solid Waste District, but the money will be recouped through a fee of $18 per year that will be paid by the residents of Carroll, Boone, Marion, Baxter, Searcy and Newton counties in north Arkansas.

Commissioner Wesley Stites, a professor of biochemistry at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, has asked the department for the past several months to provide him with a report on how the solid waste district failed and what the department can do to prevent another district failure in the future.

Stites chastised department officials last month for communicating with him verbally rather than providing a written report, which prompted department Director Becky Keogh to decline to speak to the commission as per usual this month. Department Senior Deputy Director Julie Chapman told the commission that Keogh declined because there was no longer a "symbiotic" relationship between the department and the commission.

Department attorney Mike McAlister said that while the financial troubles of the district preceded his arrival at the department in September 2012, he did not believe that the department had any choices that would have drastically changed the outcome when the district was first unable to pay its bills.

The financially and environmentally troubled North Arkansas Board of Regional Sanitation landfill has been run by the Department of Environmental Quality since 2014, although the Ozark Mountain Regional Solid Waste District owns the landfill. The district is in receivership.

The district voted to default on a $12.3 million bond in 2012 and stopped collecting trash. Trash collection was its only source of revenue. The district purchased the landfill from a private company in 2005, but most of the counties took their trash elsewhere.

The landfill has leaked and presented other environmental concerns that the department intends to clean up with the $12.9 million contract to close the landfill for good.

The Ozark Mountain Solid Waste District also has been unable to clean up a dump of 1 million tires next to the landfill.

Some officials in the area have expressed dismay about the $18 fee. Carroll County Justice of the Peace Lamont Ritchie told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that he was frustrated over the reason residents would have to pay and said he felt that district officials and board members had largely escaped accountability.

Residents will have to pay back the $12.9 million the department expects to spend, as well has hundreds of thousands of dollars in receiver's fees and attorneys' fees.

Arkansas has 18 regional solid waste districts that are overseen by the department but locally run. Their boards of directors consist of mayors and county judges in the districts, and hiring and budgeting decisions are made by the local leaders. The districts are often paired, by choice, with one of the state's 12 waste tire districts and sometimes with planning and development districts.

In 2015, the Arkansas Legislature passed a law that would allow the department to spend funds from the landfill post-closure trust fund to clean up the landfill. Before that, because the landfill had not been closed, it would not have been eligible for the funds.

Keogh told Stites last month that the department can't always prevent problems that arise from decisions made at the local level. She said the department tries to keep an eye on districts' finances.

Stites asked if the commission could pass any rules or regulations that would help the department prevent financial collapses of districts in the future.

"Specifically, I'm not aware of any one given action or set of actions that this body could have taken," McAlister said, adding that he was not aware of any actions being taken to keep the same problem from happening again in the same district or in a different district.

Stites asked if that means that Ozark Mountain's collapse was inevitable, could happen again and could not be avoided in the future.

"I suppose that's true," McAlister said.

"That being said, we're going to be watching," McAlister added before being cut off by Stites, who noted that McAlister's and others' institutional knowledge of the Ozark Mountain case will eventually disappear from the department.

Metro on 10/28/2017

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