Four local non-profits will lose upward of $100,000 this year as a private corporation importing coal ash from Puerto Rico to an Osceola County landfill profits.
For seven years, the J.E.D. landfill east of St. Cloud paid what’s known as a host fee to local nonprofits - 50 cents for every ton of waste it takes in.
That changed April 1, when Osceola County government eliminated a small contribution to nearby neighborhoods and education groups donated by Waste Connections, private owner and operator of the JED landfill.
“Due to the significant volume of Imported Coal Ash anticipated to be accepted and disposed of at the JED Facility, the contractor further requested a reduction in the Host Fee,” stated a clause in a revision to the coal ash agreement that’s been in effect since 2012.
The contract waived the 50-cent fee along with a separate $1.50 charge on out-of-state waste.
The two exemptions cut Waste Connections’ fees in half.
The company now only pays $2 per ton on coal ash from Puerto Rico that has caused outrage and concern from residents.
Osceola County didn’t waive any other host fees from January to March.
Nonprofit leaders said they weren’t notified before the county signed the agreement with Waste Connections April 1.
How much charities are losing
It may not sound like much, but the 50-cent host fee generated about $17,050 a month for the communities of Holopaw and Kenansville, along with the Education Foundation and Osceola County School Board, according to a document provided by the county.
According to the original contract which has yet to be amended, Waste Connections estimates it will take on about 200,000 tons from this coal ash deal between now and Dec. 31 – but admits it may be more.
That equals $100,000 – or more – that the company isn’t paying residents and students.
County officials have yet to answer questions.
Local resident demands answers
A lack of transparency doesn’t sit well with resident Loret Thatcher. She took aim at local politicians responsible for the deal during a May 6 county board meeting.
“The commission saw fit to waive the fees that at least compensate the community in some small way,” said Thatcher, a Holopaw resident.
“It seems like the waiver of this fee only serves to benefit the bottom line of the private entity and individuals who brought the agreement to you in the first place," she added. "Why would you do that?”
She has yet to get a real answer.
At a May 13 press conference, Fred Hawkins Jr. – whose district includes the JED landfill - described Osceola County’s host fee agreement as “elaborate,” and went on to name each non-profit organization that typically receives funds.
He failed to mention none of them were getting money this time.
Then in an email to Thatcher three days later, Hawkins said he wasn’t sure about the host fees.
“My only comment on that was I did not want the Education Foundation to receive anything due to my employment,” wrote Hawkins, who abstained from the vote April 1 because his family receives royalty payments from the landfill.
Hawkins also became president of the Education Foundation two years ago.
Hawkins was unavailable for comment.
Other county officials also couldn’t answer questions.
“So far I have not made any progress in determining who made the decision regarding the host fees,” wrote spokesperson Lisa Nason three business days after the News-Gazette inquired about the deal. Follow-up inquires on 50-cent host fees went unanswered.
Non-profit groups didn’t know they were cut out
John Haystead is president of the Holopaw Homeowners Institution, one of the four groups that receives money through the 50-cent agreement.
He said on Thursday not only was he unaware that the host fee had been waived, he didn’t even know coal ash was coming to the landfill until earlier this month.
“I cannot speak for everyone,” Haystead said. “But I knew nothing about the coal ash until it became public.”
As for the Osceola County School Board, spokeswoman Dana Schafer said there’s no official agreement between the district and Waste Connections.
Schafer said that, to the best of her knowledge, the school board was also not notified that the host fees were being waived.
The school board typically uses donations from Waste Connections to fund student and employee recognition events. Schafer added that the district is extremely appreciative for the money it does receive.
“Donations such as this allow us to keep tax dollars for operational expenses directly in the classrooms and at schools,” Schafer wrote in an email Friday.
A way to make a more competitive bid?
The solid waste industry is highly competitive, and Waste Connections wasn’t the first pick for Applied Energy Systems (AES), the coal-based power company that produces about 17 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity.
In fact, 150,000 tons of coal ash first went to the company’s rival, Waste Management, last year after it arrived at port in Jacksonville.
But then Waste Management lost the contract. It is unclear why.
“There’s always competition for this material. Absolutely,” said Waste Connections Division Vice President Damien Ribar in an interview last month.
A top AES executive also confirmed that solid waste is a competitive industry.
“It was a competitive site,” said John Bigalbal, managing director of AES’ Global Fuel division at a May 13 press conference. “This was a private, commercial transaction. There were other people competing for this.”
Eliminating up to $400,000 in additional host fees for Waste Connections would allow the company to offer a lower, more competitive bid to AES and win the coal ash contract. Both private companies refuse to disclose how much money that deal is worth.
County officials did not comment if the contract was amended to give Waste Connections a more competitive bid.
County Manager Don Fisher was unavailable for comment on Friday.