Tuesday, January 20, 2009

DEP: What a Waste!

It appears that the vaunted DEP study of the impact of commercial food waste disposers has been completed-although the agency has been quite reticent at trumpeting the results. Luckily, we have gotten some advanced news on the study's details. They are, as we predicted, almost three years ago, totally unremarkable in their self serving dishonesty. The $1million study "found" that fwds would have a "cataclysmic" impact on the sewer system; even though it did survey ten other cities were the technology is permitted, and no such dire impacts have ever been found.

Not much of a surprise; as we said in August, 2006:

"Given the DEP's publicly expressed hostility to the use of the device it makes no sense for the council to give the agency carte blanche. After all, in a letter to the sponsors of Intro 133 Commissioner Lloyd, obviously vying for a Noble Prize in Science, claimed that she had a more "scientific" method to study fwds than an empirically grounded pilot program. How will the agency sponsored study go beyond this expressed bias? Keep in mind that the Council mandated commercial waste study not only never bothered to include an evaluation if fwds, it also concluded that the clustering of transfer stations in certain neighborhoods had no negative impact on those communities. The study was ignored by all in the adoption of the SWMP."

So the Bloombergistas gave a take home exam on food waste disposers and, not content with the advantage, had their own biased folks mark the test. What's funny here is that the DEP study determined that, if only 5,000 food establishments installed disposers, it would cost the city/DEP $5 billion-or $1,000,000 per disposer. Three years ago, the agency claimed it would cost only $3 billion to adapt to commercial food waste disposers. Even adjusting for inflation, one senses that the DEP is simply pulling figures out of its tuchis. How credible is this sort of analysis?

As believable as your last month's water bill. Remember, this is the same DEP that has so much arrearage that even a collection agency is stymied. As the NY Times has reported: “We are working very hard to address that and hopefully, over time, improved collections will have a moderating effect on rate increases, but the needs of the system still dictate an increase of this magnitude,” said Anne Canty, deputy commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, which runs the water system. “That’s not to say that we are not pursuing outstanding accounts receivable. We are.” Ms. Canty said that overdue accounts had dropped to $580 million from $610 million, and that significant progress had been made in collecting long-overdue bills."

The Times has been spot on with its exposure of the agency's malfeasance. As it pointed out: "After The New York Times reported in December 2006 that the city had failed to collect millions of dollars in overdue water bills, in large part because of poor bookkeeping, the city hired a consultant to find ways to get tough with deadbeat property owners. City water officials have made some progress in reforming the collection process. Mr. Thompson said that he was concerned that many other city agencies were also delinquent in their water bills, and that he had called on Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to conduct a citywide review."

One reason the DEP has trouble collecting, is that it can't easily defend the rationale behind many of its bills. Without the ability to defend the bills' veracity there is no way that a collection process could survive a court challenge. For a number of years we represented the Water Group, a consulting firm that used its superior expertise to help businesses challenge erroneous water bills. It helped Columbia Presbyterian, for instance, resolve a multi-million arrearage that neither the hospital's finance director nor the DEP could justify."

As we remarked in April of 2007:

What all of this makes clear, is that the DEP is structurally incapable of being fiscally responsible. This means that all of its fiscal projections need to be taken lightly and we would suggest that the city put the agency into a form of receivership so that it can be restructured(along with the installation of competent management). Its keystone kops approach to billing would indicate that that agency should be run by Harold Lloyd and not Emily Lloyd.

The DEP study also apparently failed to address the potential benefits that the use of disposers could have for local supermarkets-something that a pilot program would have been certainly able to do with clarity. As we pointed out last May:

In all of our discussions about the disappearance of so many of our local supermarkets, the one major point we have emphasized is the high cost of doing business in NYC-from real estate taxes and burdensome regulations, to high rents and attendant operating costs. One of these high costs is the disposal of supermarket waste.Since the rules on garbage disposal were changed in 2003, the private carters are able to charge higher fees for "wet waste," the produce and vegetable matter that weighs more to truck away and dispose of in landfills. That the city wants us all to consume more of this produce-adding to the market costs-only adds to the irony of the situation.There is, however, a realistic alternative to this disposal problem: the use of food waste disposers.

Nor does the DEP address the benefits to neighborhood ecology-in a city where rats roam with apparent impunity. City Room's Sewall Chan has done the reporting on this: "In an 11-page research paper [pdf] financed by the pest-control industry, the two men looked at 32 large American cities and concluded that New York is the city most at risk of rodent infestations. (Some reports have described this as a “rat attack.”

Disposers would dramatically reduce the extant food waste that attracts these vermin-yet it appears that the DEP has elided any substantive discussion of this benefit. Instead, the agency has wasted time and money in a self serving effort to prevent the implementation of a promising technology, one that could help supermarkets and green grocers to become more profitable while enabling neighborhoods to become more environmentally friendly.

With supermarkets disappearing, and the city intent on providing neighborhoods with better access to fruits and vegetables, it is time to alleviate the DEP of any deep thinking on this important question-and move swiftly towards the implementation of a disposer pilot. The reality is that there is nothing that comes out of this agency that can be believed, and until it is overhauled more responsible folks should be put in charge of this crucial waste disposal question.