Trying to avoid the political volatility of most trash disposal issues, Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann and the owners of the county's waste incinerator have quietly agreed to negotiate revisions to the long-term incineration contract at the Joppa plant.
Word of the negotiations emerged from a recent private meeting between administration officials and a handful of residents and environmental and community activists in the Joppa area. The contract allows for such negotiations.
At the Sept. 13 meeting, officials asked the residents not to speak publicly about the negotiations, which could lead to added costs of as much as $7 million in the remaining 14 years of the contract and result in trash from outside the county or the state being burned at the incinerator. The incinerator is off U.S. 40 at the Route 152 entrance to Aberdeen Proving Ground.
At issue is how much the county will pay to have its trash burned at the plant, which produces steam that is used to heat buildings at the proving ground.
Also at issue is how much trash the county will guarantee to deliver and how much trash from outside the county the incinerator will burn.
County officials say they don't know where they would get the money to pay for an increase in incinerator charges. The establishment of a $35 per ton fee by the county last year for private waste haulers at the incinerator and its landfill brought 100 percent increases in trash-pickup charges to many residents.
Brambles USA of Chicago, the new parent company of the incinerator operator, says that it should be paid more for burning Harford's trash. And, recognizing that Harford's recycling program is reducing the amount of trash the county sends to the plant, Brambles also wants to go on the open market and obtain types of waste that it can charge top dollar to burn.
"The company has been giving the county a heck of a bargain," said Tom Hardin, an Arkansas attorney representing Brambles.
Mr. Hardin, who works for the Rose law firm, in which Hillary Rodham Clinton was a senior partner before she moved into the White House, said he hopes that the Harford negotiations will be concluded before the end of the year.
He said that the incinerator has been burning about 35,000 tons of waste a year, or 30 percent of the trash the county delivers, at a reduced rate. That is because the amount of trash the county would deliver was underestimated, and the contract said that any excess would be burned for a slightly lower fee.
The basic rate for county waste is $27.19 per ton.
The contract calls for the plant, one of only three municipal waste incinerators in Maryland, to take 81,045 tons of county trash a year. The county has been providing an average of 115,000 tons a year since the plant opened in 1988.
The company is also talking to the county about burning several thousand tons of outside waste each year, mainly classified government documents and batches of defective consumer products that manufacturers want to destroy.
Incinerator operators can charge $200 per ton or more to burn such waste. "The company has the legal right to go out and get that waste," Mr. Hardin said.
For its part, the Rehrmann administration says it simply wants to ensure that the incinerator operator burns all of the trash the county provides. Incineration greatly reduces the volume of waste, saving space in the county's only landfill.
"The real issue is the county needs to assure itself of space in that incinerator," said George Harrison, a Rehrmann spokesman.
Mr. Harrison and Mr. Hardin, the attorney for Brambles, acknowledged that the company has never threatened to turn away county trash.
Activists and local elected officials who have not been advised of the negotiations wonder what's in it for the county and its taxpayers. Asked why the administration held a private meeting on the negotiations, Mr. Harrison said that it didn't want to stir the emotions that often accompany trash disposal debates.
"I have questions and concerns regarding the whole thing," said Jan Stinchcomb, an Abingdon resident and member of a committee that advises the Rehrmann administration on solid waste issues.
"They need us as much as we need them," Mrs. Stinchcomb said, referring to the incinerator operator.
Harford County Council member Theresa M. Pierno, D-District C, said, "I don't know why they are being so secretive, but it certainly makes me suspicious.
"I would hope that they can't make any agreement without consulting with the council and airing this publicly," she said.
Jeffrey D. Wilson, the Republican president of the County
Council, said the county should hire expert legal counsel to negotiate with the incinerator operator.
Mr. Wilson, who recently received a confidential briefing on the incinerator issue from the Rehrmann administration, said the county needs to protect its pocketbook and ensure that any changes do not interfere with the county recycling program, which is regarded as one of the most successful in Maryland.
The county is recycling about 22 percent of the 170,000 tons of trash generated by homes and businesses each year, and officials are aiming for 25 percent by the end of the year. The recycling rate required by the state is 15 percent.
Attorneys for Mrs. Rehrmann acknowledge that the incinerator contract, a 3-inch-thick document that was prepared with help from the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, is complex. But Mr. Harrison, the Rehrmann spokesman, said there were no plans to hire outside attorneys.
The authority, a state agency that is set up as a nonprofit corporation, advises Harford and other jurisdictions on trash issues and helps them finance disposal facilities.
Even determining who owns the incinerator is complicated. Bill Davidson, a staff member at the waste authority, joked that it's easier just to call it "the company."
The local owner is a company called Waste Energy Partners Limited Partnership, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Environmental Systems Co. of Chicago, which last spring was bought by Brambles, itself owned by an Australian company.
Some council members, Mr. Wilson and Mrs. Pierno among them, also want to ensure that the incinerator is operating with all available environmental safeguards.
County officials say improvements in environmental controls will come as soon as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publishes long-awaited regulations, some of which are expected be stricter than those already established by the state.