THE FEARLESS CONSUMER- Mulch madness: Trashy debris sparks suit

Heard the one about the termite-infested Lousiana mulch? According to one alarmist email, trees ravaged by Katrina "were turned into mulch and the state is trying to get rid of tons and tons" of the stuff. "So it will be showing up in Home Depot and Lowe's at dirt-cheap prices, with one huge problem: Formosan termites...These termites can eat a house in no time at all."

In reality, as– the urban-legend-debunking website– goes on to explain, this is an unlikely scenario: Louisiana's Department of Agriculture and Forestry "imposed a quarantine on several parishes back in October 2005 specifically to prevent the accidental movement of Formosan termites to other areas."

Even so, the email does include one good tip: "Tell your [home-owning] friends to avoid cheap mulch and know where it came from." That's a tip that could have saved Virginia and Raj Paul a major consumer headache that's gone on for almost two years now.

The Pauls hired Albemarle Super Wash and Lawn Maintenance to spread 20 cubic yards of mulch at their Still Meadow Avenue home in April 2004– mulch they claim they were told would be dark, double-shredded, and match the mulch on their neighbor's adjoining lawn. Instead, as attested to in writing by Waynesboro Nurseries and Snow's Garden Center, the mulch was full of "excessive trash" and "debris."

Specifically, according to Corbin Snow, there were shards of metal and glass, caution tape, and 12- to 18-inch pieces of tree stumps and limbs. The Pauls took pictures of other items they claim came with the mulch: plastic in three different colors, twine, rope, hose, a candy wrapper, cloth, rubber, metal cans, and chunks of wood.

When I wrote about the debacle ["Mystery mulch," June 10, 2004], I asked Albemarle Super Wash owner Andrew King how the debris could have ended up in what he had advertised as "dark double-shredded mulch." He didn't know, he replied, but would ask the supplier.

Turns out "the supplier" was the Rivanna Solid Waste Authority (RSWA)– aka the Ivy landfill. King volunteered that to me when I called last week to ask why he's still billing the Pauls, when his suit against them for nonpayment was dismissed in Albemarle County General District Court. According to the Pauls, the mulch's trashy origins also came out in court.

On its website, RSWA claims that it "produces a top-grade mulch product by recycling waste wood that is brought to the [landfill]. Stumps, brush, untreated pallets and other usable organic debris, which would otherwise be landfilled, are now being ground into mulch. Magnets remove nails and other metal fragments to further refine" the mulch. Judging by what landed on the Pauls' front lawn, however, they may have missed a few.

In his November 10, 2004 opinion, General District Court Judge William Barkley ruled that because "the quality of the mulch delivered was a breach of the agreement," the Pauls did not have to pay King's $695 bill ($195 for what his flyer billed as "homeowner's grade" mulch and $400 to spread it). Barkley didn't stop there; he also ordered King to reimburse the Pauls for "the reasonable cost of the removal of the mulch [and] purchase and spreading of the new mulch," which Waynesboro Nurseries estimated would cost $1,125.

King appealed, and the matter has been in limbo in the County Circuit Court ever since. A court date was set for October 6, 2005, but, according to Virginia Paul, King's lawyer couldn't make it, and a new date was supposed to be set. The Pauls are waiting to hear the new date; they're also waiting for their money. Meanwhile, King continues to bill them, and has added $867 worth of interest to the original $695.

Asked why he intends to appeal the court's decision, King replied, "It's the principle of the thing." What principle that would be, however, he didn't say.

Do you have a consumer problem or question? Email the Fearless Consumer or write her at Box 4553, Charlottesville 22905.