Towns Seek to Chart a Better Course for Regional Trash Disposal Methods

By IAN FEIN

The Vineyard is taking a fresh look at how it handles its trash.

Selectmen from Tisbury and Oak Bluffs on Monday will take up the possibility of hiring the Martha's Vineyard Refuse Disposal and Resource Recovery District to manage their municipal solid waste, which, if it happened, would mark the first time in roughly 15 years that all six towns on the Island are working together under a unified trash disposal system.

Meanwhile, the regional refuse district is hoping to sign within the next two weeks a purchase and sale agreement for an 11-acre property directly behind its base operation on the Edgartown-West Tisbury Road.

District officials say the cooperation and expansion are both necessary steps to improve their current functions and accommodate the possibility of future services such as composting and a more comprehensive recycling program. The potential developments come at a time when the Vineyard is facing rising fuel costs and a rapidly growing amount of solid waste produced on the Island each year.

"Economically, these are steps we have to take, because otherwise it is just going to keep getting more expensive," said refuse district manager Donald Hatch, who has been visiting selectmen across the Island to apprise them of the developing situation. "We need to join forces to control our overall long-term cost. This could get out of control very easily if we're not careful."

Island residents may not think much about what happens to their trash after they drop it off at the local transfer station.

Since all six Vineyard landfills were capped and closed over the last decade, virtually all of the solid waste produced here is shipped off Island and then trucked to a mainland incinerator or landfill.

Between 1997 and 2002, the amount of solid waste produced on the Vineyard each year grew from just under 14,000 tons to more than 18,000 tons, but the rate of increase has since jumped dramatically. Numbers compiled last summer put the total amount of solid waste and construction debris collected in all six towns at 29,000 tons, while a separate unofficial estimate, which includes trash handled by private haulers, approached a total of 40,000 tons shipped off Island last year.

With growing awareness about the rising price of fuel, looming impacts of climate change and comprehensive planning efforts under way at the Martha's Vineyard Commission, the Vineyard Conservation Society this winter authored a position paper calling for a radical shift in the way the Island handles its solid waste. The nonprofit environmental advocacy group has a long track record in the field, having developed the first recycling program on the Vineyard in 1971, and sponsoring the annual Earth Day beach clean up on the Island each spring.

"In an age of rising fuel costs, uncertain supplies, and global warming, taking integrated local responsibility for reducing our waste footprint makes both financial and environmental sense," the conservation society wrote in the letter, which called for hiring an outside professional consultant to assist with the work of the Island Plan devoted to waste disposal.

The conservation society distributed its position paper across the Island and received widespread support from nearly every board of selectmen, the Dukes County Charter Study Commission and the regional refuse district.

David Nash, a conservation society director and a member of the Island Plan waste work group, said he was heartened by the reaction that the paper received. He spent more than a decade working as the director of engineering and enforcement in the Connecticut bureau of waste management, and said he was surprised by the state of the Vineyard trash system when he moved to the Island full time a number of years ago.

"It needs work," Mr. Nash said this month. "We have such an intelligent, hardworking and caring population here. Yet we don't seem to put our money, our taxes, to good use in building an infrastructure that makes this a better place to live."

Ideas expressed in the position paper and embraced by the Island Plan work group include: improved sorting of recyclable material, a construction debris and building re-use program, and composting of organic waste.

Cooperation among all six towns is seen as a vital first step to improving Island waste management. The current balkanized system is fraught with inefficiencies and also creates confusion among many Vineyard residents about their local recycling programs.

Refuse district officials say acquisition of the 11-acre property adjacent to the 23-acre Edgartown transfer station is necessary to accommodate the goals, as well as to better handle some of existing functions and traffic flow. The refuse district will hold one of its periodic hazardous waste collection days tomorrow, and is also seeking a permit for year-round waste oil storage, currently unavailable on the Island.

"To offer more of these services, we need to start spreading out," Mr. Hatch said. "We know we will need more space in the future."

In order to buy the property, the refuse district will likely need voter approval from its four member towns to borrow money in excess of its current bonding limit. Though an agreement with the seller has yet to be signed, the proposed purchase price is understood to fall somewhere between $1 and $2 million. Mr. Hatch has approached Island selectmen to inform them of the possible need to call a special town meeting on the issue. He said reaction has been universally positive, with some sensitivity to cost and the potential difficulty of securing appropriate permits for the expanded site.

He said member towns would also like to see some sort of financial commitment from Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, which left the regional refuse district in 1994 and privatized their operations. Their current five-year contract with Allied Waste is set to expire later this year, and selectmen from both towns will meet together on Monday to consider private bids for operating their transfer stations, as well as a proposal from the regional refuse district.

Tisbury public works director Fred LaPiana said selectmen have not yet decided which route to take, but he noted that talks between the district and two towns have been largely positive.

"Discussions are going very well with regard to some of the common issues we face," Mr. LaPiana said. "And hopefully, from some of those discussions, the Island as a whole will benefit."

The pending decision by Tisbury and Oak Bluffs is also influencing the possible purchase of the 11-acre property, which is seen as necessary to handle the waste from those two town transfer stations.

"We all agree that the purchase of this land is critical to creating a regional future," Dukes County Commission member Carlene Gatting said at an Edgartown selectmen's meeting this week. "We think it's a unique opportunity, and one that shouldn't be missed."