San Diego Union-Tribune, 7/31/10 | Read the original article |
By Jeff McDonald
San Diego’s city website boasts that the Miramar Landfill “is the nation’s first municipally-operated landfill to earn ISO 14001 certification.”
A banner at the landfill office marks the same distinction, granted by a Switzerland-based group that publishes worldwide standards to promote the best management practices across business and government.
In the case of a landfill, that meant operators pledged to take specific steps to protect the air above and groundwater below the dump.
But the city stopped using the standards of the International Organization for Standardization just before preparing to privatize the landfill, The Watchdog has learned.
Weeks before Mayor Jerry Sanders announced in July that he is exploring the idea of “getting the city out of the landfill business,” his staff began informing workers that the city would no longer use the international standards.
“After a considerable amount of evaluation and thought, it was decided that we no longer have to maintain the ISO 14001 certification as the program has achieved our City goals,” according to a May 24 e-mail obtained by The Watchdog.
The e-mail offered no further explanation of the change. In response to questions from The Watchdog, Environmental Services director Chris Gonaver said the benefits of the certification have run out.
“Approximately $5 million in savings were realized initially, however no new new savings or environmental improvements, attributable to ISO, have been realized since 2005,” he said. “After a year of evaluation, the (department) determined that the essence of the ISO certification could be more successful and save resources if an internal environmental management system was adopted.”
The ISO did not return an e-mail seeking comment about its standards no longer being met at the Miramar Landfill. But critics are concerned that the city might be relaxing its operating practices so the landfill will be more attractive to private bidders.
They also worry that the privatization paperwork issued by the city includes provisions to expand the height of the landfill up to 20 feet and extend the boundaries to the west, making it more valuable.
“It’s like a pot of gold for trash,” said Murtaza Baxamusa, director of research and policy for the Center on Policy Initiatives, a pro-labor think tank based in San Diego. “It’s all about the capacity.”
Baxamusa, who holds a doctorate in planning, said that without the international certification, any private-sector operator is likely to save money.
“What you can extract out of every cubic foot of the land potential is what generates money,” he said.
The Miramar Landfill is the primary destination for most of the region’s solid waste and greenery. With approximately 1 million tons of refuse a year, the dump generates $50 million or more in revenue for the city.
Carolyn Chase, chairwoman of the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, was unaware the standards had been dropped.
“ISO standards matter,” she said. “I find it peculiar for the city to say the value is over because a certification is an ongoing thing. Anything without independent verification is always questionable from an environmental perspective.
“There’s something in there that somebody doesn’t want to keep doing. That’s what I’m worried about.”
The city operates the dump through an agreement with the U.S. government for 1,400 acres adjacent to Marine Corps Air Station Miramar that runs to 2045.
For years the city has expected to close the landfill and take its trash elsewhere, only to see its life extended.
Applications to assume operation of the dump are due at City Hall on Aug. 13. The privatization effort would require approval from the City Council and several members have endorsed the idea.