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Fees charged to companies that dump trash into landfills will go up next year if the Arkansas Legislature doesn't approve a change to the laws surrounding the fee.

The increase could add $3 million to $3.5 million in a year's time to Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality revenue for the landfill post-closure trust fund, said Becky Keogh, department director.

But Keogh and others are looking at ways to prevent that from happening.

"I think it can be worked out," said Rep. Sheilla Lampkin, D-Monticello, who submitted two bills in the spring legislative session related to the post-closure fund. One would have addressed the fees but was not heard before the session ended.

The Public Health, Welfare and Labor committee, which has discussed the matter with the Environmental Quality Department, will do so again Dec. 7.

The post-closure fund is for use after landfills have closed.

An example is the C&L landfill in Fayetteville, which was the first and most recent beneficiary of the fund. It closed in 1976 but had to be repaired this year because erosion caused waste to surface. The Environmental Quality Department has budgeted about $500,000 per month and up to $3.4 million by the spring to complete replacement of a landfill cap there and install a leachate-collection system so the city can continue the construction of a park around and on top of the landfill.

That project is part of what will drain the post-closure fund to $15 million by April or May, triggering the increase in landfill fees from $2.50 per ton to $3.50 per ton.

Some 3.4 million tons of trash were deposited in Arkansas landfills in fiscal 2015, according to a Department of Environmental Quality report released earlier this month.

The increase was largely unexpected by lawmakers, many of whom didn't realize that a bill passed in 2007 to allow solid-waste districts to collect a portion of the landfill fee for electronic waste also allowed the collection of the extra dollar if the post-closure fund dropped to $15 million.

Right now, the landfill fee is $2.50 per ton. A 1991 law allocated $1 toward the landfill post-closure fund and $1.50 toward solid-waste management and recycling. By design, once the post-closure fund reached $25 million, collection of the $1 fee was to cease and begin again once the fund dropped back to $15 million.

But in 2007, the Arkansas Legislature banned electronic waste in landfills, prompting legislation to address recycling of such material. Act 512 was passed to provide funds for electronic-waste recycling by keeping that $1 fee in place, even when the post-closure fund exceeded $25 million.

When the fund hit the $25 million mark in January 2009, that $1 fee continued to be collected and went toward an electronics-recycling grant program for which districts applied.

However, the language of the 2007 bill keeps the $1 fee in place for electronics recycling, even when the post-closure fund drops back to $15 million, as is projected this spring. That would raise the landfill fee to $3.50.

That cost increase would affect waste haulers and possibly customers' bills, said Charles Miller, executive director of the Arkansas Environmental Federation, a business group that focuses on environmental laws and compliance.

"They'll factor it into the cost of doing business," Miller said, referring to the waste haulers.

Any change would have to come from the Legislature, Keogh said.

Keogh told legislators Wednesday at a meeting of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee special language in the 2016 fiscal session or an amendment in the 2017 regular session could halt the electronic-waste fee until its $9 million reserve runs out, preserving the $2.50 fee. Such a move would continue funding the electronic-waste program at a similar level for the next three years, Keogh said.

To prevent the fee rise to $3.50, the law would have to change by the spring, she said.

Another way to fix the problem, Keogh said, would be to transfer the $9 million in reserve for the electronic-waste program directly into the post-closure fund, which would prevent it from reaching $15 million.

That move also would need legislative approval, she said.

Lampkin's bill that would have addressed the fees wasn't filed until March 4. That's because it took that long to determine with the Environmental Quality Department exactly what the bill should include, she said.

At the time, the department was transitioning between directors. But the bill got the support of interim Director Ryan Benefield, Lampkin said. The Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee stopped hearing bills before it was scheduled to run, though, she said. The legislative session ended April 22.

That bill would have raised the cap on the post-closure fund from $25 million to $30 million and would have authorized a $1 electronic-waste fee only as long as the trust fund was above $20 million.

"I know there were some discussions with ADEQ leadership at the time to try to work something out," Keogh said. "This is kind of what I walked into."

The Dec. 7 meeting of the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee also will include discussion on matters lawmakers have raised regarding solid-waste districts' reports on how the electronic-waste money is spent.

Lampkin's first bill this session regarding the landfill fee -- Act 1176 -- turned the electronic-waste money into a disbursement program instead of a grant program. In addition, it removed a requirement the districts report how the money is spent, although Lampkin said that was not her intention.

She ran the bill at the request of the 10-county Southeast Arkansas Planning and Development District, which wanted to get the electronic-waste funds more expediently.

So Lampkin drafted a bill similar to one passed in the 2013 session that changed recycling grants into an automatic disbursement program, meaning districts don't have to specify and justify to the Department of Environmental Quality how that money would be used before they can get it.

Legislators said Wednesday they were concerned the money for the recycling and electronic-waste programs were being spent without any oversight or accountability.

NW News on 11/23/2015

Print Headline: Environment agency, lawmaker look to halt fee rise at landfills

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