Waste Management

Darfield Dump Dumped

Watchdog 92 reported the saga leading up to the selection of the Malvern Hills, near Darfield in Canterbury, as the site for the proposed regional landfill to be built, owned and operated by a joint venture between Canterbury local bodies (headed by the Christchurch City Council) and two garbage transnationals, including our old friend, the notorious Waste Management (see previous Watchdogs for its spectacular court record in the US and elsewhere. Ed). This decision had attracted unprecedented opposition in Darfield and the surrounding Selwyn district, with every likelihood of a lengthy and bitter series of hearings, court battles and appeals. It had become a major public issue in Christchurch and throughout Canterbury. The outspoken opposition of the local MP, Jenny Shipley (who just happened to be Prime Minister in the then National government) meant that it commanded attention at the highest political level. The national media regularly reported it – this was a major story.

In the wake of the 1999 announcement of the preferred site, Dump The Dump (the Selwyn group set up to fight it) settled in for the long haul. On the Sunday after the November general election they invited the public to join them at a picnic at the dumpsite, so that the urban rubbish producers could see the future destination of their weekly black plastic rubbish bags and weekend trailer loads to the various refuse treatment plants around Christchurch. Several hundred people accepted the invitation and headed for the hills (the Malvern Hills, that is). CAFCA was represented by myself and Reg Duder. Once again, we took several hundred copies of our leaflet on Waste Management, the same one that Reg and I had handed out at the 1999 midwinter Darfield public meeting to oppose the dump (over 1,000 people had attended that). It has been well circulated throughout the Selwyn district, being included in Dump The Dump’s material at the annual Canterbury Show and at the picnic itself. Driving towards Darfield, on the West Coast highway, motorists couldn’t escape the plethora of Dump The Dump signs on the roadsides, farm gates, and in farmers’ paddocks. These people were angry.

The three speakers at the picnic reflected the broad political opposition to the landfill. They were, in order: Sir Kerry Burke, former (Labour) Speaker and current Christchurch 2021 Canterbury Regional Councillor; the local National MP, Jenny Shipley, who was still Prime Minister, despite National having been defeated the previous weekend; and Rod Donald, Greens co-leader, and technically an ex-MP at that point, as the Greens had fallen short on election day (but ended up with seven MPs, once special votes were counted). Shipley said that one of the few consolations in losing the election was the time that was now available to her to fight the landfill. The organisers also singled Brian Priestley out for thanks. The former head of the University of Canterbury School of Journalism and well known media commentator had devoted several of his weekly columns in the Christchurch Star to comprehensively rubbishing the dump.

It was a very strange sensation for CAFCA people to be listening politely to Jenny Shipley from a few metres away, surrounded by her applauding constituents. Single issues definitely lead to strange bedfellows. It was all a bit much for old Reg, who had been heavily involved in the fightback against Shipley’s vicious benefit cuts and war on the poor in the early 1990s. He shouted out something and was promptly shoved by the rural Tory next to him. But the rain doth fall on Tory and CAFCA alike – the speeches were abruptly foreshortened by the opening of the heavens, everyone scattered and decided that while they were at it, they might as well go home. Our retreat was only temporarily stopped by Rod flagging us down to give us a piece of his homemade quiche (proving that he can’t be a Real Man). We were left with several hundred of our leaflets – fortunately we found a home for them in mailouts by Agenda 21 and the Aoraki (Canterbury) branch of the Greens.

So the stage was set for a ding dong battle lasting years. Waste Management NZ itself was heavily committed to a propaganda offensive. It took journalists to its Redvale landfill, north of Auckland (see, for instance, Press, 14/2/00; "Redvale – a place where landfills work", by Mike Bruce). Waste Management NZ was one of the finalists for the 1999 Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporation In New Zealand (see cover story. Ed.). This obviously perturbed it – CAFCA received an unprecedented approach from Jane Parlane, of the Auckland Communications Company, on behalf of their client, Waste Management. She rang me more than once, anxious to know things like who had nominated WM ("was it an individual or an organisation?"). We don’t release those sort of details. Her main aim was for us to relay PR material to the Roger Award judges, so that, presumably, they would have all the "facts". Eventually she sent an entire NZ Post Handibox full of PR bumf, with one set for each judge – annual reports, glowing environmental references and articles from the likes of Lockwood Smith and Guy Salmon (with friends like those, who needs enemies?), even a videotape singing the praises of WM’s Redvale landfill, north of Auckland (this had been made especially for use in Canterbury. If anyone wants the video, it’s yours for the asking.). She needn’t have bothered – WM didn’t win, wasn’t even in the worst three.

The issue was generating enough steam to run a decent size rubbish incinerator. And then, suddenly, it was over. Why? Because of a laughably simple reason. Geologists conducting preliminary site investigations came across a previously unknown earthquake fault line running right through it. In February 2000, it was officially announced that the Malvern Hills site had been abandoned. The dump had been dumped. Selwyn opponents were ecstatic; the joint venture spokesman, pugnacious Christchurch City Councillor, Denis O’Rourke, put a brave face on it: "We always said we would walk away if we found an environmental flaw. We are now showing we are not prepared to compromise on that "(Press, 5/2/00; "Quake fault rules out landfill site"). It was a humiliating climbdown for O’Rourke, who has staked his reputation on the landfill (see Watchdog 92. Ed.).

Brian Priestley had another perspective: "So, hurrah! – the Trig Hill fiasco is over. The big Malvern Hills dump has indeed been dumped. After all the fuss and expense, they have now discovered (would you believe it?) that there’s a small fault line running across the site. This has apparently come as a surprise to the City Council, the other local bodies concerned, and their team of officials and experts. Fault line or not, of course the area could be affected by earthquakes. Of course there was a danger of contaminating our water supplies. It was simply a bad idea. I am almost sorry the scheme collapsed because many questions remain to be answered about the Malverns episode, and a public hearing would have been the ideal place to put them. But it’s over now, and the City Council has still to find an answer to our rubbish problem" (Christchurch Star, 11/2/00; "Dump fiasco over").

Of course this doesn’t mean the end of the regional landfill saga. The joint venture intends to follow the words of the old song and pick itself up, dust itself down and start all over again. Just where the new site will be is the $64,000 question. Canterbury Waste Services general manager, Gareth James, said that it had relinquished its claim to the Cattle Peaks Station site at Omihi, North Canterbury (see Watchdog 91 for full details of the Omihi battle. Ed.), nor will it proceed with another favoured site, at Norton Downs, near Amberley, also in North Canterbury. The joint venture has also ruled out expanding the existing Burwood landfill, in Christchurch (which has a few more years to run). It has announced that it will have to look further afield, in a radius of 75-100 kilometres from Christchurch. It will take 12 months to produce a new shortlist of sites, and once one is selected, the whole exhausting process will start again. As for Waste Management, it is quietly building a bigger presence in Christchurch. In February 2000, the City Council announced that it would begin trial collections of garden waste, using WM’s wheelie bins.

Sir Kerry Burke Flays The Landfill And Waste Management

This unexpected breathing space has been seized on by the one local body politician who, equally unexpectedly, has emerged as a major thorn in the side of the project, his fellow local politicians and Waste Management itself. Namely Sir Kerry Burke, Canterbury Regional Councillor and an articulate and trenchant opponent of the whole thing. He has his own barrow to push – namely that incineration of rubbish is better than landfilling and he offers the model of Vienna, where he worked throughout most of the 1990s (the Vienna incinerator was built by the famous Austrian architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who spent nearly 30 years living in Northland, and who died in February 2000, en route back to Austria for a visit). It needs to be said at this point that CAFCA has no expertise in the merits of the incineration vs landfilling argument, nor where any landfill should be sited. That is not our issue.

Burke first went public back in 1999, and despite a consistently furious response from his Christchurch 2021 colleagues, namely Christchurch Mayor, Garry Moore and City Councillor, Denis O’Rourke, he has stuck to his guns. He has publicly made glaringly obvious points such as that a company with a heavy investment in trucking rubbish (WM) could be expected to push for a landfill involving high volume and long distance trucking. When Burke first went public, we approached him and offered him what we had on WM, both here and internationally. He accepted the offer and has obviously made good use of it.

In February 2000, he produced an 11 page background paper entitled "Waste Disposal In Canterbury". Burke has consistently attacked one aspect of the whole project from when he first went public, and it’s one that CAFCA finds highly objectionable too – just how did the garbage transnationals come to get their hooks into this landfill scheme?

"Private sector partners should fairly compete with each other, but should be dealt with on an arms length basis, not an arms linked one. My experience as a Member of Parliament, as a Minister and as Speaker told me what was happening here in Canterbury was the antithesis of what good government practice should be. This Super Dump proposal which effectively creates a $500 million business, emerged from a decision making process which I believe was opaque, grossly deficient and rushed. The public’s interest has not been well served by the intrusion of private companies into what should have been the preserve of elected local government representatives".

He analyses the history – back in 1992, the Canterbury Regional Council gave the Christchurch City Council permission to operate the Burwood landfill for a further eight years. Waste Management appealed this decision, to the Environment Court. "This was the beginning of an extraordinary love dance, a mating ritual which concluded with a happy marriage of public and private interests and the birth of their baby, Trans Waste. WM held a gun, the appeal, at the CCC’s head. WM then offered to withdraw if the CCC entered into a joint venture with it…Government deregulation had created a much freer market and WM used this more open business environment to threaten to open up its own dump in competition with the city. It has the international muscle to run a loss making operation until its competitors cave in…The legal dispute never went to a hearing at the Environment Court. Several times one party or the other would seek mediation and then, mysteriously, back away…Decisions were in fact being made, but off stage, away from the limelight and the public gaze…".

Burke is succinct on how the partners were chosen. "No tenders were called. It was not a competitive process…" WM and Envirowaste (the other private partner) have, properly, a primary duty to their shareholders, not to the Canterbury public. What chance could an alternative proposal from another company have with them influencing the decisions?" Burke details the refusals by the City Council to release details of alternative proposals, citing that old shibboleth "commercial confidentiality". He pulls no punches:

"There are serious grounds for the Commerce Commission to show an interest in this decision making process. It seems, on the face of it, to be anti-competitive quite apart from a corruption of good governance. We are, after all, talking about very big bucks" (emphasis added. Ed.). He does a detailed study of comparative costs and drops the odd bombshell along the way."The Malvern site would also be more expensive than when costings were done in 1992 because Trans Waste was proposing that the leachate which didn’t get into the aquifers would be recovered and transported back to Christchurch for delivery into the Estuary via Bromley. Yes, I thought that might surprise you. An ‘oversight’, not to tell the Community Boards or the public? Well, consulting them is something which some think is best done after decisions have been made. Community Boards are a bit like the Canterbury Regional Council, better not have them in the way".

His final section is entitled: "So what about Waste Management?" and details the spectacular court record of the company in the US and elsewhere. All very familiar to Watchdog readers. "These examples may, of course, have nothing to do with us or the way WM operates here. Alternatively, they may help to put into perspective the Environment Court appeal and the threats to Christchurch City. These are the actions which lay behind the changing of minds at the City, the deal struck over waste in Canterbury and the regional landfill proposal…The Trans Waste model should be abandoned. The CCC and the District Councils should start again and do the job properly, transparently and fairly. If there needs to be a change in the law to give local authorities more control over their waste stream, let’s ask for that. Let’s involve the private sector at the end of the decision making process by fair competitive tender. A better process will ensure that Canterbury’s economy, its environment and the condition of its body politic will all be enhanced".

Waste Management Sells Out In NZ; Endless Scandals IN US

Changes are afoot at Waste Management NZ. Ever since 1999, it had been rumoured that WMNZ was going to be one of the international subsidiaries to be sold, by an increasingly troubled and poorly performing American parent. In 2000, this was announced as a fact. Waste Management, which owns 60.5% of WMNZ, is selling the NZ subsidiary, not to another garbage TNC but partially in a sharemarket float. This has raised eyebrows, with one sharebroker saying: "People are a little surprised they (the US parent) haven’t been able to find a premium buyer in a trade sale" (Press, 12/2/00). One major reason is because the parent failed to sell all its international assets to another garbage corporation in one sale. WMNZ is valued at about $240 million and made an $11.73m after tax profit for the year ending December 1999. The sale was expected to be complete by April 2000, but its drawn out nature meant that WMNZ’s share price has plummeted in 2000. WMNZ said that being sold "is a positive move for the company long term and that the process will result in a satisfactory outcome for all" (NZ Herald, 25/2/00). Furthermore, the sale will free WMNZ to "explore opportunities offshore" (ibid).

Waste Management has been selling subsidiaries all over the world e.g. in November 1999, it sold its Finnish one for $US100m. The proceeds from all these sales are being used to reduce debt, repurchase shares and buy more solid waste businesses in North America. WM is no longer out to conquer the world, but is retrenching to focus on its core market. In recent years, to add to the endless string of court cases against it, WM has been beset by accounting problems and management turmoil. The chickens have come home to roost.

Watchdog 92 reported on a mid 1999 insider trading scandal involving numerous of WM’s highest executives. This led to a further slew of court cases and other dramatic repercussions. In August 1999, WM fired its president, Rodney Proto, and replaced its CEO, John Drury. The Securities and Exchange Commission launched a formal investigation of the company’s finances and an informal inquiry into stock sales by its officers. In October 1999, WM admitted that it had inflated past profits and warned that this would impact on future earnings. Shareholders promptly file 14 lawsuits against it. In November, WM announced the creation of a $US220m fund to settle the claims from those class action suits alleging fraud in its financial reports before its merger with USA Waste Services. WM is in such constant legal and ethical strife that an American electronic newsletter, Trash Talk, has been set up specifically to report it. For example, in December 1999, WM itself filed a $US1.3 billion suit against another garbage company, claiming that it had overstated its profits to defraud WM when WM bought it. The suit also names Proto and Drury, WM’s two former top officers, as personally benefiting from the purchase. What a cesspit! (Trash Talk and the Stop Waste Management Campaign, in the US, can be contacted at righterwmx@aol.com).

So, this most criminal of US transnationals is selling up and quitting NZ. Good riddance. What a textbook example of rampant criminality, environmental abuse, and lack of any business ethics. In the US, it’s not the waste that’s getting managed, but rather the management that’s getting wasted. But we’re still stuck with the ubiquitous wheelie bins and the landfills, current and planned. It will be a long time before the stink left by this smelliest of TNCs fades from our nostrils.

Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. December 1999.

Email cafca@chch.planet.org.nz

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