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Washington County board delays new agreement with Newport garbage facility

Washington County commissioners have delayed a vote on extending the county's decades-long agreement with a private Newport waste-to-energy facility that processes much of the county's household garbage but remains heavily subsidized by taxpayer dollars.

The Board had been set to vote this week on approval of a renewed three-year agreement with Newport's Resource Recovery Technologies, or RRT, which has sorted and processed hundreds of thousands of tons of solid waste each year from Ramsey and Washington counties into burnable fuel for more than 25 years.

To do that, however, RRT has relied on millions of dollars in subsidies from both counties, including $75 million since 2006. The public funds are needed because it is cheaper for trash haulers to truck waste to a landfill, officials say, rather than to have it processed into fuel at the Newport facility; the millions of dollars in subsidies are rebates intended to help make up the difference in cost of dumping at RRT for haulers.

Concerns with continuing subsidies to the facility - especially considering the company has for years declined to open their books to county officials, some commissioners said - led the Board to delay a vote until next week.

Ramsey County commissioners on Tuesday OK'd the contract 6-1. The renewed, three-year agreement would commit the two counties to contributing a maximum of $8.4 million per year over the next three years to fund hauler rebates at RRT. Washington County's share would be capped at $2.3 million per year.

Commissioners will reconsider the proposal at a meeting Sept. 25.

"When they're asking for a subsidy I think we have every right to see their books," said Commissioner Autumn Lehrke, who represents south Washington County on the Board and indicated at the meeting Tuesday she would vote against ratifying the agreement.

Lehrke was one of two votes against the proposal last month when a joint board of Washington and Ramsey county commissioners voted 6-2 in favor of the plan.

Board weighs risks

The plan, if ultimately approved, would extend the partnership between the east metro counties and RRT for three additional years, from 2013-15, end direct payments to RRT, cap county subsidies at $8.4 million per year and give Ramsey and Washington counties the option of purchasing the facility or further extending the agreement in 2015.

A 37 percent charge on top of commercial and residential trash bills in Washington County helps fund the county's share of costs at the waste-to-fuel plant.

Commissioner Gary Kriesel, of Stillwater, asked to delay the vote, saying he was concerned about the impacts of Washington County rejecting the contract. The plant, he warned, could close - and jobs lost -- if both counties didn't agree to the deal.

"I have absolutely no problem taking this in a different direction," he said of the longstanding partnership with RRT. "But we need to do some due diligence."

Kriesel said he doubted the county "has the financial horsepower to go it alone" in waste management.

Lisa Weik, who represents much of Woodbury on the five-person board, expressed legal and environmental concerns with the impacts of a 'no' vote by Washington County. Even if it isn't being enforced, the county would be violating a state mandate that all solid waste be processed, she said, and would, in turn, be sending more unprocessed waste to landfills.

"So, what's the risk? The risk is if unprocessed waste goes to landfill we could poison the groundwater," Weik said.

RRT has turned much of the county's waste into refuse-derived fuel that is then burned by Xcel Energy since 1986, processing more than 400,000 tons of trash and recycling 20,000 tons of metal per year.

The plant, however, still contends it cannot compete on the open market because of the higher cost of processing waste compared to burying it in a land fill.

District 2 Commissioner Bill Pulkrabek called the arrangement a case of "big government propping up big business."

"I cannot continue to let Washington County be an enabler with these huge subsidies," he said, "and I'm going to vote 'no.'"

Impact on Newport?

The impacts of Washington County withdrawing from the joint agreement - including where the county's garbage would go, what Ramsey County would do and whether the RRT plant would continue operating -- are unclear, officials say.

A controversial local project when it was first proposed in the early 1980s, the RRT facility now generates roughly $95,000 per year in tax revenue for the city of Newport, said City Administrator Brian Anderson.

Newport officials said at a meeting Thursday they feared a rejection of the agreement by county commissioners could mean RRT's closure and the loss of up to 60 local jobs.

"We want to keep the facility here and operating," Mayor Tim Geraghty told Lehrke, who attended Thursday's meeting at Newport City Hall. "We want the jobs, we want the tax base."

The council voted 4-1 to approve a resolution recommending Board approval of the agreement next Tuesday. Council member Tom Ingemann voted against the resolution, echoing concerns with the continued subsidies.

Lehrke, addressing the City Council, reiterated her objection to more subsidies while RRT refuses to share financial details of its operation with the county. The company, she said, "should prove" it needs the heavy subsidy. The best option, Lehrke said, may be for Ramsey and Washington counties to buy the facility and operate it themselves.

If the plant were to close, she said Thursday, the company would have only itself to blame.

"If they close their doors it's their own fault," Lehrke told the City Council. "They created a business model that doesn't work."