COVER- Tipping Point: Is Van der Linde laying waste to Waste Authority?
Last week, trash hauler and recycling entrepreneur Peter Van der Linde may have quietly destroyed the hold that his nemesis, the government-run Rivanna Solid Waste Authority, has had on area trash for nearly 20 years.
In the past, Authority director Tom Frederick, when responding to the drop in Authority revenues caused by the opening of Van der Linde's MRF, Materials Recovery Facility, has always defended the Authority's viability by pointing out that the RSWA-sponsored transfer stations accepted household trash, while Van der Linde's facility did not.
But all that changed last week.
After months of delays, which Van der Linde claims were caused by a campaign of harassment from the RSWA or its partners in trash, his facility was finally issued a state permit to accept household trash for recycling on Monday, November 23.
So what does this mean? As hundreds of Time Disposal Inc. customers learned last week, it means that recycling has now become as easy as, well, putting out the trash.
'It don't get no easier'
"Great news everyone," wrote Time Disposal owner Boyd McCauley in a recent customer newsletter. "We will now be taking recycling out of the regular trash. No need to sort."
"Van der Linde has changed everything," McCauley says in an interview. "Even our customers who don't recycle are now recycling. It don't get no easier."
"Everybody is going to start going there," agrees Randy Dixon of Dixon's Trash Service, which also began taking all collected waste to Van der Linde last week.
"And everybody should," says Dixon. "Now, we finally have something that's real, and people will be able to recycle more materials, things they didn't even realize they could recycle."
As these haulers point out, Van der Linde has finally made it economically feasible to offer recycling services. Before last week, both haulers had to run separate trucks, but now their customers can simply put all their trash and recycling into one big bin.
The Ruckersville-based McCauley concedes that he burns more time and fuel to reach Van der Linde's facility, located in Zion Crossroads, but he says the lower tipping fees and elimination of two trucks makes it worthwhile– not to mention the ease created for his customers.
Basically, McCauley and Dixon can now return to the business of collecting, and leave the sorting and recycling to Van der Linde. What's more, Van der Linde's facility gets rave reviews from state officials.
"They are running the cleanest facility in our region," says Valley Department of Environmental Quality Waste Manager Graham Simmerman, who was in charge of issuing Van der Linde's DEQ permits. "So far," says Simmerman, "it's been the cleanest of all our permitted MRFs."
As Simmerman points out, it was no easy task getting permitted for household trash, and from now on, Van der Linde's facility will have to withstand unannounced quarterly inspections, just as if it were a landfill. In fact, Simmerman says DEQ inspectors sent a message by making a surprise visit to the facility just hours after it opened last week.
"We always show up unannounced," says Simmerman.
For a year, Van der Linde has been accepting construction and demolition debris and co-mingled recyclables, charging about a third less than Authority tipping fees, and essentially capturing the local market for such materials.
As one trash hauler who began using the place in April put it, "I used to send the RSWA $10,000 to $15,000 a month. Now I send them barely anything at all."
Indeed, according to the RSWA's latest financial report, tipping fee revenues decreased by $758,000 this year compared to last, a decline the Authority attributes to the economy, the construction slowdown, and the opening of Van der Linde's $11 million facility.
Van der Linde says he began to wonder if opening day would ever come, as he spent the last three-and-half years focusing on the design/build phase, getting permitting, and fending off a $20 million RICO lawsuit against him by the aggrieved RSWA.
"Now I can finally focus on the marketing and daily operation of the facility," he says, "which is what I really like to do."
Van der Linde, who blasts the lawsuit as a "vendetta," claims that he has endured a campaign of harassment from the RSWA or its local partners in trash, who he suspects of filing numerous anonymous complaints about his facility with the DEQ.
Of course, that might sound like sour grapes, given his ongoing legal battle with the Authority, but the harassment was real.
"People were trying to use our agency to irritate Mr. Van der Linde," says the DEQ's Simmerman.
Even before Van der Linde had broken ground on the household waste expansion, Simmerman says, his office began receiving anonymous calls, complaints against the facility– all of which, Simmerman says, turned out unfounded.
In fact, Simmerman says the DEQ has received more anonymous complaints about Van der Linde than any facility in the region, to the point that the agency– required to investigate all tips–- became "extremely frustrated" by the calls.
"Some of our best tips are anonymous," says Simmerman, mentioning that several illegal dumping grounds have been discovered this way. "It's very unusual that we'll go out after these calls and find nothing wrong, but these calls about Van der Linde's facility were totally unfounded. It was a waste of our manpower."
Some complaints, says Simmerman, were about Van der Linde allegedly accepting household waste without a permit. Another, he says, was about a terrible odor coming from the facility; it turned out that the stench was emanating from next door– at the RSWA-sponsored transfer station.
Although Simmerman says he can't prove the calls weren't from concerned citizens, he strongly suspects players in the trash business because Van der Linde's facility is "upsetting the status quo" by diverting waste "away from the RSWA and BFI."
BFI, acquired by Allied Waste and now owned by Republic Services, operates the RSWA-sponsored station in Zion Crossroads and professes ignorance of the anonymous calls, according to a statement by media relations manager Peg Mulloy, who urges that the lawsuit not be tried in the press.
Authority director Tom Frederick said he was "very surprised" to learn about the anonymous complaints. "I have nor reason to believe that anyone at RSWA was involved," says Frederick.
However, Simmerman reveals that RSWA officials made an inquiry about Van der Linde's operation as early as June of last year– which he thought was odd because it was out of their jurisdiction– asking when permits would be issued, what monthly tonnage rates would be, and whether Van der Linde had a solid waste management plan.
Fredrick confirms that an inquiry was made, but says it was simply public information they obtained for their own "planning purposes."
"It's appropriate for RSWA to make itself aware of the alternatives and resources available," says Frederick.
"In many ways, these complaints against Mr. Van der Linde's facility," says Simmerman, "have been a measure of its success."
Couldn't they see this coming?
Of course, anyone following Van der Linde's story could have guessed where this was going.
"I think it's a powerful thing he's doing," said Alec Cargile, president of Lithic Construction, back in February. "If people start using his service," he noted, "it could have a huge impact on the whole county."
Yet, nearly two years later, and despite numerous offers from Van der Linde to work together, RSWA officials have refused to pursue a discussion. Strangely enough, they've been continuing to operate as if Van der Linde's transformative business model didn't exist.
Just recently, the Authority approved a $15,000 expenditure to hire a North Carolina-based consulting firm, O'Brien Environmental, to help draft a Request for Proposals to privatize the operation of the Ivy Transfer station, a plan that could take years to materialize and still result in a mere transfer station.
The Authority would lease the facility to someone willing to repair or replace its aging infrastructure and operate it for profit. However, some wonder how such a facility could make a profit without "flow control"– a legal requirement that everyone send their trash there.
Indeed, why would any major trash hauler use an updated Ivy Transfer station, which would accept trash to be transferred to a MRF, when there is already an area MRF just a little more than 20 miles away that currently charges lower tipping fees? Also, since such a plan couldn't be realized for at least a year or more, how does the RSWA expect to continue operating now that Van der Linde has been permitted to accept all trash for recycling?
"Good questions," says County Supe Ken Boyd, who sits on the RSWA Board, "and why I am interested in what private sector solutions are out there. I think the public benefits by spirited competition in a free enterprise environment."
But wouldn't real competition involve not a transfer station but another MRF? At press time, Boyd had yet to respond to the follow-up question.
Authority director Frederick, presented with the same questions, provided a similar response to Boyd's.
"Now that the RFP has been approved, I believe it best to let the private marketplace determine the outcome," says Frederick, "instead of speculating in advance."
Trash hauler McCauley says he no longer has any reason to use RSWA transfer stations, or even the Greene County landfill, now that Van der Linde accepts everything for a lower price.
Meanwhile, our elected officials have continued to commit taxpayer money to a government-run Waste Authority that is operating steadily deeper into the red and has yet to come up with a long-term plan for continuing to offer waste disposal and recycling services. In addition, elected officials have continued to voice support the RSWA's lawsuit against Van der Linde, in which they allege that he conspired to bilk the Authority out of more than $1 million in tipping fees before he opened his facility. The lawsuit has already cost the money-losing Authority $340,000 in legal fees with the trial date still at least six months away.
What's more, if the City of Charlottesville collects your trash and recycling, none of it will be making its way to Van der Lind's facility. That's because the city recently signed a five-year contract with Waste Management to collect household waste, which, under an agreement with the RSWA, must be taken to RSWA-sponsored stations. As for city curbside recycling, that's collected by Allied Waste/Republic Services, which isn't about to divert waste away from its Zion Crossroads transfer station.
In the County, Van der Linde hopes that public pressure, especially from neighborhood associations wanting to know their trash is getting recycled, might encourage these two companies to start using his facility, but he's not holding his breath.
A 'disgusting,' 'frivolous' lawsuit
Meanwhile, criticism of the lawsuit, and the Authority's handling of waste and recycling services, has come from across the political spectrum.
"If this doesn't bother you, nothing will," declared former Republican City Councilor Rob Schilling on his WINA radio program, saying he was "disgusted" by the Authority's legal action against Van der Linde. "It's wrong in every single way."
"It's an attack on a private citizen, funded by tax-payer money," intoned Schilling– who even began making and marketing "Dump RSWA" bumper stickers. Schilling calls the lawsuit "frivolous" and challenges his listeners to press city and county officials to "lay the heck off."
In addition, recently elected Democratic City Councilor Kristen Szakos and defeated Independent candidate Bob Fenwick, who demanded that the lawsuit be "repudiated" during his campaign, have also questioned the lawsuit.
Szakos, who says that her father-in-law was a private trash hauler pushed out of business by city government in Pennsylvania, tells the Hook that she is "very concerned" about the way Van der Linde has been treated.
"His innovative, comprehensive approach to recycling is just the sort of thing we should be encouraging, not crushing," she says.
At a November 2 City Council meeting, the chair of the RSWA's own Citizen's Advisory Board, Jeff Greer, had complaints, telling Councilors that "nothing" has been achieved during the two years the Authority has been discussing its "strategic plan" for continuing to offer waste disposal and recycling services.
What sense did it make, Greer asked Council, in light of the major role that Van der Linde's new facility could play in the area, for the RSWA to continue pursuing its lawsuit, what Greer called an "unproductive dispute" that makes it appear that "our public officials are blocking a positive private initiative in favor of a vested interest in a system that is failing."
Clearly, Greer's comments put City Councilor David Brown, who sits on the RSWA Board, on the spot, but Brown doesn't seem to be budging from his position in support of the lawsuit.
There remains a "compelling argument" that Van der Linde "intentionally evaded" the RSWA's service contribution fee "to the tune of a million dollars," said Brown.
"I don't think we should wipe the slate clean if he intentionally evaded paying the fee," said Brown, who acknowledged that he thought the fee system was a "funny mechanism" that was indeed unfair to haulers like Van der Linde, but that it was the "rules of the game."
For nearly two years, insisting that it was not "appropriate" to debate the case in the press, the Authority has remained largely silent on its lawsuit, but the debate appears to have finally chased the Authority from its legal foxhole.
"When the public only hears one side of the issue," wrote Frederick in a recent memo to his board, "they may not understand the purpose of the litigation. There is a very simple and fair question that should be answered by citizens and talk-show hosts who are defending Mr. Van der Linde. Is it okay for a business to not pay a lawful fee and let the resulting shortfall of revenues fall upon the taxpayer?"
According to Frederick, after the RSWA's "service contribution fee" system was finally implemented in 2005 (more about that later), Authority officials began noticing sharp drops in the amount of area trash that Van der Linde was declaring at the RSWA-sponsored transfer station at Zion Crossroads, as reported by BFI/Republic Services, a development that Frederick characterizes as a smoking gun.
"During one twelve-month period from September 2006 through August 2007, Mr. Van der Linde's companies declared zero tons from Albemarle/Charlottesville," says Frederick, "a period within which there are multiple photographic records" of Van der Linde's orange dumpsters in the area.
At the time, Frederick had his recycling manager, Bruce Edmonds, tracking and photographing Van der Linde's containers. In the county, development director Mark Graham had instructed his building inspectors to keep track of the distinctive dumpsters.
"They might think I'm a criminal, but do they think I'm stupid?" responds Van der Linde. "Do they really think I would declare zero trash for a whole year, with my glow-in-the-dark orange containers everywhere, and think I could get away with it?
"Yeah," he says with obvious sarcasm, "that's a brilliant plan."
Van der Linde claims that several area haulers, as well as three BFI employees, will testify that BFI never fully enforced the RSWA's fee system, and that his company is being unfairly singled out when RSWA fees went uncollected from many other haulers due to alleged BFI negligence.
What's more, Van der Linde says the Authority is relying on records from a company with a record of not keeping records. Indeed, according to documents obtained by the Hook, the Authority's own documents concede that the Authority discovered in 2005 that BFI managers were "completely unaware" of their contractual obligation to collect the RSWA fee.
The situation prompted the Authority to threaten legal action against BFI if the company didn't start asking haulers and correctly tallying where trash originated.
None of this is mentioned in the Authority's complaint. In fact, BFI manager Eddie Scheider is quoted from a September 2005 letter saying that the company "relied on the honesty and integrity" of the haulers. "As we can now determine," says Scheider, "that has not been the case with several haulers."
Several haulers? All along, Van der Linde has wondered why he was singled out for a lawsuit and suggests that the allegedly mismanaged agreement between the RSWA and BFI between 1997 and 2005 likely denied tax payers far more money than the Authority alleges he owes. Frederick was recently asked why no other haulers were sued, if, as Scheider says, there were several being dishonest, but Frederick did not respond.
Van der Linde says that BFI began enforcing the fee system only after the RSWA threatened legal action in 2005, an action that enraged haulers, who saw their per ton fee literally jump $16 overnight.
"I find it totally outrageous that you send an invoice," wrote Robert Bobbit of Culpeper-based Efficient Roll-Off & Recycling to RSWA officials, "that charges a 30 percent higher per ton rate and expect it to be processed without any notification."
The situation eventually prompted Van der Linde to file his own lawsuit in 2006, arguing that the Authority's fee system was unfair, not because of the added cost or lack of notification, but because it exempted transfer station operator BFI, a competing trash hauler, from paying the fee.
Van der Linde lost the case, and in its current RICO action, the Authority suggests that it was Van der Linde's failed lawsuit that motivated him to defraud the RSWA.
Right and wrong
"This case is about right and wrong," says Frederick. "Mr. Van der Linde knew the process of collecting the information. He said to Mr. McNair in the Hook article that he was 'saved' when BFI stopped asking the question. Even if you believe that BFI stopped asking the question, what was he 'saved' from? He was 'saved' from paying a fee he knew he had to pay."
Frederick writes of "lies of omission," but according to the complaint, one of Van der Linde's drivers, Richard Wayne Kendrick of Palmyra, has told RSWA lawyers that he was told to actively lie.
Kendrick, however, comes with some baggage of his own. Admitting to spending more than 20 years in jail, he was arrested in April after sending Van der Linde an alleged extortion letter demanding $90,000 or else he would tell RSWA officials he was told to lie. Kendrick is expected to defend himself at his trial in Fluvanna County Circuit Court on December 10.
Van der Linde doesn't deny knowing that he escaped the RSWA fee when BFI didn't ask, but he likens his situation to paying a restaurant tab when you know the waiter omitted the charge for an appetizer. BFI was under a contractual agreement to ask the question, he points out, whereas he was under no legal obligation to answer unasked questions.
One major problem for the Authority is that it has no way of figuring out exactly how much Van der Linde may have saved. As a result, it has demanded that Van der Linde figure it out and hand it the money, and the Authority has cited his refusal to do so as evidence of his wrongdoing. In response, Van der Linde insists that it isn't his job to help the RSWA manage, monitor or enforce its "faulty" fee system agreement with BFI.
Several local business lawyers opined that evading a legally obligated fee may present legal difficulty for Van der Linde but that the Authority may have real difficulty going back and collecting a fee where it is their responsibility to charge and collect.
A single source
Still confused about who's at fault? You're not alone. However, one long-time local hauler has a theory.
"Van der Linde lied, and BFI did, too," says Randy Layman, who says he started the county's first "blue bag" recycling program over 20 years ago and served on the trash committee when the RSWA was created.
"It was," says Layman, "a don't ask, don't tell sort of thing."
As for the RSWA, which he says he knew was going to "get out of hand" when it was created, he claims they modified the agreement with BFI illegally.
"They didn't put it up for open bid. That was illegal," he says. "You've got to put it up for bid."
However, Authority director Frederick flatly disputes that, saying that the award of the contract to BFI on December 31, 1997 was based on an RFP for transfer station services that was put out on March 31, 1997.
Layman says he's also skeptical about commingled recycling, which he thinks a ploy to get customers.
"They're telling people it's all getting recycled," he says, "but it's just getting all mashed up and contaminated."
A 2003 study by the city of Chula Vista, California showed that single stream programs have a higher contamination rate of recyclables, as much as five percent, than source-separated programs, but they add that recycling volumes typically increase by as much as 100 percent, diverting much more overall waste from landfills.
So, will Van der Linde's MRF become our area's landfill of the future? Will the RSWA become obsolete before their lawsuit even gets to court? And who will win the lawsuit? Only time will tell. Meanwhile, Van der Linde appears to be the only true waste disposal game in town.
Last weekend alone, 40 tons of cardboard– each bale shown here is a ton– was pulled from the household waste stream at Van der Linde's MRF and baled for recycling.
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Aluminum cans pulled from the household waste stream and baled for recycling.
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Peter Van der Linde and his chief of operations, Michael Ledford, couldn't be happier to be awash in trash. On their first day last week collecting household trash for recycling, they processed 100 tons. "Isn't this stuff great?" says Van der Linde, pointing to a 15-foot high pile.
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
"Van der Linde has changed everything," says Time Disposal's Boyd McCauley. "Even our customers who don't recycle are now recycling. It don't get no easier."
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Aluminum cans, number two plastic, newspaper, and cardboard pulled from the household waste stream at Van der Linde's MRF await to be bailed for recycling.
PHOTO BY DAVE MCNAIR
Time Disposal's McCauley says he's added many new customers since announcing his plans to use Van der Linde's MRF. Indeed, as this photo from local realtor Jim Duncan illustrates, residents of this Crozet neighborhood have recently made the switch, replacing their blue BFI bins for Time Disposal's green ones.
PHOTO COURTESY JIM DUNCAN
"This case is about right and wrong," says RSWA director Tom Frederick in a recent memo concerning their $20 million RICO lawsuit against recycler Peter Van der Linde, accusing him of "defrauding" the RSWA out of more than "a million dollars in tipping fees."
FILE PHOTO BY HAWES SPENCER
Van der Linde alleges that getting his recent permit to accept household trash for recycling from the DEQ was nearly derailed by a campaign of harassment from the RSWA or its partners in trash. Indeed, a DEQ official says they received more anonymous complaints about the facility than any other in the region, all of them unfounded.
FILE PHOTO BY JEN FARIELLO
Correction: The section header "RSWA responds" said "RWSA responds" in our print edition. (RWSA is a separate entity.) The error has been corrected in this online archive.