L.A. council approves new trash collection plan

By Jessica Garrison and Christine Mai-Duc, Los Angeles TimesNovember 15, 2012

A hotly contested plan to transform the way much of the garbage in Los Angeles is collected won backing Wednesday from the City Council, but the city’s trash wars are far from over as opponents immediately threatened both a lawsuit and a ballot initiative.

After a raucous hearing, the council voted 11 to 3 in favor of a plan backed by environmentalists and organized labor that would carve the city into 11 new and exclusive hauling franchise areas for waste pickup from commercial properties and large apartment buildings.

Those customers are currently served by dozens of private companies, which vie for business in a market worth about $220 million a year. Proponents of the new system, including the city’s Sanitation Department, say an exclusive system will boost recycling, reduce truck traffic and improve working conditions in a hazardous industry.

But business interests and many of the city’s trash companies bitterly oppose the plan and have vowed to keep fighting it. They say the city can achieve the same recycling and environmental goals while maintaining a more competitive trash market that will keep rates lower. Some have also charged that the exclusive franchise system is primarily a gambit by labor groups and their council allies to make it easier to organize more refuse workers.

Labor and environmental groups say they hope to replicate the new Los Angeles model around the nation. “This is about cleaning our environment,” said Councilman Richard Alarcon, whose daughter, Andrea Alarcon, has championed the plan as the president of the city’s Board of Public Works.

But Ruben Gonzalez, vice president of public policy for the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, argued that “this is about a City Council enacting a specific labor agenda, ignoring the family-owned four- and five-generation small businesses that will be forced to close and the thousands of jobs that will go with them.”

The plan now moves to the Sanitation Department, which must work out myriad details pertaining to setting up a franchise system and ensuring that it can meet the goal of expanding recycling to make Los Angeles a “zero waste” city by 2025. The new program will probably not take effect until at least 2017. It will not involve single family homes and apartment buildings of four units or less because city workers collect trash from those properties.

Council members suggested more than a dozen amendments, including exempting hospitals from the new program. Those will be studied and considered in the coming weeks.

As advocates celebrated in the council rotunda, clapping, taking photographs and shouting, “Si se puede,” opponents insisted that the issue isn’t settled.

“Our fight is far from over,” said Sean R. Rossall of the lobbying firm Cerrell Associates, which represents waste haulers and businesses.

Last week, Rossall threatened a referendum to overturn the plan, a threat repeated after Wednesday’s vote.

Before the council acted, Rossall circulated a letter to city officials accusing them of potentially violating California’s environmental laws by not preparing an environmental impact report on the proposal. Such a report is required, Rossall said, because the new system is “a sweeping change” that could result in more trucks on the roads and other environmental impacts.

“We will sue them if they don’t do a full EIR” he said.

Adrian Martinez, a lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the plan, said he found it “interesting that there is such zealous defense of the California Environmental Quality Act by … all these business interests.”

The three council members who voted against the plan are Mitchell Englander, Bernard C. Parks andJan Perry, a mayoral candidate who has been highlighting her business-friendly positions.