Monday, March 29, 2010

March 30, 2010 - Issue of the Week

Jumping Through Hoops, or When Planning is a Joke

On Tuesday the County Council will have a public hearing, and most likely adopt, a new Comprehensive Solid & Hazardous Waste Management Plan for the county and all the cities (click here to download). While garbage and recycling in this county represents tens of millions of dollars there has been no public outreach to find out what people want, and there have been no recent surveys to find out how well the system works or if it could be more cost effective. In fact we don't even know how much recycling we do around here, or where the collected materials go.

On Tuesday our Public Works Department hopes no one shows up and that the Council just passes this so they don't have to think about recycling and garbage any more for a few years. This plan was due years ago, but because of lack of priority, lack of care and lack of trained solid waste staff it drug on past the point that those who may have cared to begin with even realize it is now up for adoption. And it better pass or our Public Works Department is really in trouble since as of May the position for the one Solid Waste employee they have is being eliminated, and the responsibility for all the garbage collection, recycling and hazardous waste in the county will be in the hands of a Public Works secretary (that's not mentioned in the Plan).

Most plans that the Council adopts contain clear goals, objectives, data analysis, specific programs, priorities, measurable accomplishments and budgets. There is none of that in this plan. It is just a compilation of good sounding ideas thrown together with no clear idea of what the emphasis is, how it will be implemented or paid for, or how to know if anything has been successful. It is not a plan it is a list of various ideas and factoids cut and pasted from various other documents for the purpose of meeting some planning requirement. Nothing to get excited about, or hang your hat on, or to hold anyone accountable for.

Perhaps some specifics will help illustrate my point:

The highest goal of any solid or hazardous waste management program is always to implement programs that prevent waste from being generated. Back in the early 90s Whatcom County won many state and national awards for these types of programs. In this Plan it states:

“This plan assumes that there is, and will continue to be, public support for waste and pollution prevention programs. Therefore it calls for pollution prevention and waste prevention programs for both solid waste and moderate risk wastes.”

That sounds pretty good, except that there are no such programs described in the Plan and what is there are six generic bulleted “strategies” that are copied exactly from the Snohomish County Plan (section 2, page 25).

There is also no explanation in the Plan of why if waste prevention is the highest priority all the money and programs that fall under that category have been cut in the past year. Or why the County is now spending more money on litter than on waste prevention and recycling. Seems like a comprehensive plan would explain what is really occurring instead of some generic ideals copied exactly from a different county with a much different solid waste system.

The Plan also does not explain why if pollution prevention is the highest goal there are no programs included along those lines like there were in the past, but nearly the entire moderate risk waste budget has been taken up by an increasingly expensive hazardous waste disposal program. What the plan doesn't say is that we have made the decision here not to try to provide incentives or educate people about not buying hazardous waste to begin with, but to make it easy for a small proportion of people (less than 7000 in 2008) to dispose of stuff for free when they buy too much. In other words waste and pollution prevention programs (the highest priority) for the entire population have been cancelled so we can afford to subsidize the free disposal of hazardous waste for less than 5% of the population. While proper disposal of this stuff is certainly important there is no consideration of other ways to do it cheaper. For example in Snohomish County they have a similar facility that is open far fewer hours to serve a larger population.

One last example: For years those concerned with Whatcom County's solid waste management have pointed out that the funding for the entire system is based on a universal collection ordinance that requires all people in the county to have garbage and recycling service unless they fill out an exemption form showing how they deal with their waste in a responsible manner. Previous studies (nothing in this plan) have shown that up to 20% of the households in the unincorporated areas ignore this requirement and the County does nothing to enforce it. This situation recently led to the collapse of the garbage and recycling service in Point Roberts leaving no collection service at all. In their review of this situation the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission stated:

“These ordinances, together with significant non compliance and a lack of enforcement, create a barrier for any certificated solid waste collection company to develop a sustainable customer base. The failure of the County to recognize and address the detrimental impact of its County-wide ordinances and policies on solid waste collection in the small community of Point Roberts has created a very difficult situation. “

While the location and population base in Point Roberts in particular makes this situation worse it is a problem throughout the county, leading to significant illegal dumping. It also means that our system is under-funded, that those who do have garbage pickup are subsidizing the programs of those who don't, and that collection costs more for those who do follow the law. You would think such a recognized basic problem would be addressed in a Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan. There is no mention of this problem in this proposed plan.

I suspect no one will show up for this hearing because the County has done a good job of dragging this out for so long and undermining all attempts to turn this into a legitimate plan that most citizens who initially tried to have a say in this have burned out and went away. The real meat of this Plan is the “Five Year Plan” portion which ironically covers the years 2008 - 2012. By the time this Plan is passed nearly half of the five year planning period will be over before anyone even knows what it is we are suppose to be doing. But don't worry about that - there really was no plan to do anything during that period anyway.

The County could have saved a lot of time and money if they just submitted a one page document that said “Be Happy - Recycle” on it with perhaps a big smiley face.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

March 16, 2010 - Issue of the Week

The Conflict Between Reality and Wishful Thinking

**** Warning - Recently someone referred to me as a "policy wonk." I took this as a complement even though I am not sure it was meant that way. The following is a long, wonkish post, because in reality most of our problems are not simple and can not be explained in sound bites. But for those of you who are not wonks here is the Twitter version:
We are running out of oil. Soon this will force us to address large increases in costs and associated economic and social disruptions. Can county government think ahead of the curve to lessen these impacts here in Whatcom County?
The full version

On Tuesday morning at 9:30 the County's Natural Resource Committee will be treated to the sobering news that we are running out of oil and we better start planning differently if we don't want to find ourselves in a world of hurt. Later in the day we will consider whether we should continue to move forward with planning to allow as many people as possible move to far flung parts of the County ensuring the need for more driving, more expensive roads projects and services to remote areas. It will be fascinating to see how the different Council members try to make these conflicting ideas jibe in their policy decisions.

We will start the day off with a special presentation from the Energy Resource Scarcity/ Peak Oil (ERSPO) Task Force. This is a group that was formed jointly by the County and City of Bellingham and they spent well over a year drafting a report meant to change the way we think about our future. As the report states:
“Our current economic, social and political institutions expect that reliable, abundant energy supplies will be readily available to meet continued demand. Whatcom County residents and businesses depend on oil and natural gas for their economic welfare and many of their most critical activities, including transportation, food supply, water delivery, health care and electricity. It is too rarely acknowledged that global oil and natural gas reserves are finite and that sufficient substitutes are unlikely to be widely available in the near future.

Most reports and studies on peak oil and energy resource scarcity convey a strong sense of urgency in planning for a future with dramatically reduced petroleum supplies.

The era of relatively plentiful and inexpensive oil will soon be over, and the sooner the community acknowledges and addresses this reality, the more secure our future will be.”
While sobering, the report is also well written, well documented, and provides a blueprint for acting locally to lessen the impacts of the coming energy constrictions and associated price increases. It is clear we need to start thinking about transportation, our economy, farming, and basic services differently if we are going to avoid major upheavals during this transition. You can download a copy of the entire report here. The main question isn't whether this is the truth, or even when it will happen, but whether government can rethink years of planning assumptions that energy is pretty much free and transportation is cheap. To quote a well known green alarmist:
“One thing is clear, the era of easy oil is over. What we all do next will determine how well we meet the energy needs of the entire world in this next century and beyond”
David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO, Chevron
None of this should come as a great surprise to anyone who has been paying attention, but in a community that loves to love its refineries it can be hard to accept. We certainly have all seen the price of gas increase dramatically in the past few years as access to cheap and easy oil decreases. Just this week a story out of Alaska states:
“Less and less oil is flowing through that engineering masterpiece that is the trans-Alaska oil pipeline, built in the 1970s to link the North Slope's liquid gold with insatiable markets.

And at some point in the near future -- maybe as soon as 2014 -- flow is expected to dwindle enough to cause potentially major operational issues.

Flow, or throughput, peaked in 1988 at 2.1 million barrels per day from the Slope to Valdez. That rate has dropped to about 680,000 barrels per day, and is expected to continue sliding five and half percent per year, based on numbers provided to Alyeska by producers and the state Department of Revenue.” Full story here
This translates to a problem for our local refineries that are fed primarily by Alaska. Locally Trans Mountain pipeline has expanded their capacity to deliver crude oil from British Columbia and the tar sands of Alberta to Whatcom and Skagit Counties, but that won't make up the difference and that oil is much more costly to produce. Enbridge, the current majority owner of the Olympic Pipeline, is floating a variety of schemes to move tar sands oil from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia where it would be loaded on tankers. That oil could head to Cherry Point, but currently all the discussion seems to indicate that the Asian markets are willing to pay more, and these are private companies who are trying to maximize their profits.

Putting aside the tremendous economic and environmental problems associated with milking oil from the tar sands in Alberta it would also appear that while we were living high off the Alaska oil hog other parts of the country snuck in and stole the rights to that Alberta oil before we even thought about wanting it. The first indication of this was when our local BP refinery lost out on a major expansion to handle such oil to another BP refinery in the Midwest. Now there are thousands of miles of very large new pipelines being built from Alberta to the Midwest and Gulf Coast.

But what does all that have to do with the County Council you ask? Well you must have noticed that we all worship the taxes and jobs the local refineries provide this community. Just last month the majority of the Council went nearly apoplectic when the state legislature discussed placing a pass through tax on our refineries. The cries of “it will cost jobs”, “It will undermine our tax base,” and my personal favorite “they will move the refineries to Indonesia” was heard throughout the courthouse with much gnashing of teeth. Some on the Council have even threatened to pull out of the Washington State Association of Counties over the whole thing. How will these same councilors react to the even more threatening message in this report that oil is dwindling. Will they refuse to believe it, blame environmentalists for too many regulations, hope to be out of office before it manifests itself, or look for a way to transition these valuable jobs to other forms of energy production?

At this same meeting we will also be discussing and voting on various land use proposals, some of which will allow hundreds of people to live in areas far from urban services. One of the recommendations in the ERSPO report is:
“Foster land use patterns and transportation systems that will make it easier for people to shift trips from autos and trucks to other types of transport.”
How will the Council incorporate this information into land use decisions. Will they continue to push for developments such as Semiahmoo 2 that will put hundreds of people in an area far from where they work and shop. What about spending vast amounts of money on road infrastructure for such developments if indeed the use, or at least the size of cars is going to change dramatically in the next decade.

Right now the County is planning to spend nearly $6 million on one short section of Lincoln Road (between Birch Bay and Blaine) to increase safety since people in the area have complained for years that the current road is too narrow (like roads all over the county) for today's large vehicles and they often are driving travel travelers on this road. If ERSPO is correct it would seem large vehicles and travel trailers will soon be a thing of the past, so should this money be spent to accommodate these soon to be dinosaurs?

This same stretch of Lincoln Road it is claimed is needed to allow people from this area to get to I-5 faster because most of them are still working in Bellingham or Vancouver - 25+ miles away. In light of ERSPO would we be better off using the $6 million trying to create other forms of transportation? Should we be trying to make it clear to people that living in a place where you need to use 2 gallons of oil each day to get to your job is not a very good choice for yourself or for society? To play it safe (and be fiscally conservative) in a time of uncertainty should we tell the people of the area that the best safety option at this time is for them to just slow down a little bit and plan more time to get to their far off jobs and errands?

These of course are the types of questions (and they are just the tip of the iceberg) that local politicians hate, because to be addressed they require a shift in what we have all come to think of as our normal business and lifestyles. While we may all acknowledge that change happens, none of us really like it very much and government in particular seems to do whatever is possible to avoid it.

So will local county government embrace ERSPO and change the way it plans, or do what government often does and emulate the ostrich?

One final thought that shows how backwards our county government efforts are in light of ERSPO. I recently received my tax bill from the County. It shows that I owe the County $223.95 for the current expense fund that basically goes to pay for law enforcement, courts, public health, water quality - the basic necessities. It also shows that I owe $308.49 for County Roads. Why in the world am I being taxed 30% more for roads than for the basic necessities?

The ERSPO presentation will start at 9:30 AM on Tuesday in the Council Chambers. Hope to see you there.

-------------UPDATE AFTER PRESENTATION-----------------

Should come as no real surprise that the Ostriches are in the majority on the County Council.