An emergency rule issued last month by the Washington state Agriculture Department to protect the state’s $2 billion apple industry has threatened to derail Spokane’s curbside yard waste recycling program – just as the city is preparing to begin picking up green bins this week.
The rule, which strengthens the department’s regulatory power over composting facilities, surprised city officials and the private operators of the city and county’s shared composting facility in Lincoln County. They warned that the rule could cost the city more than $1 million in upgrades or shut down entirely the green waste operation, which collects food scraps and yard debris.
The new rule stems from a proposal to ship 100,000 tons of Seattle’s compost annually to a Central Washington facility. State agriculture officials feared Seattle’s apple maggots would infest the 170,000 acres devoted to apple orchards – the state’s most profitable agricultural commodity – prompting them to strengthen the regulation. Now, counties under an apple maggot quarantine cannot ship compost to counties deemed free of apple maggots. Spokane County is the only Eastern Washington county under the quarantine. The city’s composting facility is about a mile into Lincoln County.
“The way I describe what we are is collateral damage. The discussion is about Western Washington waste moving into Central Washington,” said Ken Gimpel, assistant director of the city’s utilities department who oversees its solid waste operation. “Right now, we’re out of compliance with that rule.”
Still, Gimpel said he’s been assured that the new rule won’t be enforced as details of the mitigation process are discussed and finalized. The city’s green waste will be composted, he said.
Condon brothers run companies involved
In a twist on sibling rivalry, the composting companies involved are both run by brothers of Spokane Mayor David Condon. Barr-Tech, which deals with 95 percent of the green waste from Eastern Washington, is in remote Lincoln County and run by Ted Condon. PacifiClean, which is currently trying to site a compost facility in Grant County to deal with Seattle’s compost and which prompted the new rule, is run by Larry Condon.
“Ironically, yes, it seems the new rule stems from what Larry proposed,” said Ted Condon, adding that he hadn’t spoken to the mayor about this issue, though they talk daily. He also said he hasn’t spoken to Larry about the issue.
Barr-Tech has been processing the city’s compost since 2011, before Condon was elected mayor. Cautious of an actual or potential conflict of interest, Mayor Condon issued an executive order in June 2013 barring him from executing “contracts and other legal documents” involving his family members, and handed that authority to Gavin Cooley, the city’s chief financial officer.
The city pays about $520,000 a year for composting services.
Condon’s family ties, and their potential conflicts, came to light in 2012 when Ted and Larry Condon, who formed Barr-Tech with another business partner, parted ways. Larry Condon sued for a stake in the company, and Ted Condon said his brother was simply an employee. Mayor Condon, who has nearly 50 first cousins and eight brothers and sisters, kept his distance at the time, saying it was “the modern-day way of going out in the backyard and having a fistfight.”
The lawsuit between the brothers was dismissed in 2013, with no fees or costs to either party.
Through his companies and personal finances, Ted Condon has donated nearly $4,000 to Condon’s re-election campaign. Larry Condon has donated nothing.
Despite his familial ties to the issue, Ted Condon said he appreciated the need to protect the state’s apple industry.
“When it comes to billions of dollars, they have a reason for concern,” he said. “But my fear of what would happen is coming true: a blanket rule. All we’re looking for is a level playing field.”
The most valuable crop
Steve Fuller, a policy analyst at the state Agriculture Department, used similar words as Condon, but with a far different meaning. He said the department’s first priority is “to make sure the apple industry is protected.”
“We’re aware that there are some different situations or environments for our different composters, and we’re comfortable with the idea that different environments have different realities,” Fuller said. “It’s a little bit of a challenge because we get pressured to regulate in a way that’s consistent across the state. A level playing field.”
The pest at issue first appeared in the state in Clark County in 1980 and soon spread along the Interstate 5 corridor. Now, 22 of the state’s 39 counties, primarily near the Cascades and along the Columbia River Gorge, are infested by the maggots. The pests can quickly destroy the fruit of an entire tree by feeding on and laying eggs in apples.
Washington produces about 70 percent of the nation’s edible apple crop, with a total annual value of about $2.2 billion, and about 1.3 billion pounds of apples. Wheat and potatoes are the next biggest crops, but they don’t reach half the value of apples.
Agriculture officials don’t just fear the loss of the state’s apple crop, but also spreading the pest worldwide. In 2014, Washington’s apples were exported to Canada, Mexico, Taiwan, India and the United Arab Emirates, the state’s top international markets.
“It’s a really big concern for our international partners,” Fuller said. “A lot of apples are exported. Apples have just been approved for China, after that market had been closed for a long time.”
‘There isn’t a Plan B’
Gimpel, at the city, said pest concerns from Spokane’s compost are unfounded, at one point calling Lincoln County a “desert.”
Ted Condon echoed Gimpel, saying the nearest apple crops to his facility were “to the best of my knowledge, you’re talking Wenatchee.”
For them, the 75,000 tons of compost handled at the facility annually is of paramount concern. Nearly three-quarters of the compost comes from the city and county. If the facility is prevented from receiving that green waste, Gimpel said, the city will have to “turn it back into garbage” and incinerate it at the Waste-to-Energy Plant.
“There isn’t a Plan B,” Gimpel said. “There are options. Best-case scenario is that the Department of Agriculture takes into account our suggestion that we don’t have a problem over here.”
Gimpel said another possibility is instituting the mitigation plan that is currently under consideration by the Agriculture Department: finely chopping the compost and compacting it.
“If we did grinding, they would require us to do that inside. That could exceed $5 million,” Gimpel said. “In that case, we’d just have to incur the extra capital cost and pass that cost to the ratepayers.”
The complexity of the issue was lost on no one, but it was clear that the issue was far from resolved.
“We have no ambition to condemn the Department of Agriculture,” Ted Condon said. “We just want to be in business for a long time.”
Fuller, in the Agriculture Department, sympathized but said his priority differed.
“The apple industry is our No. 1 concern,” Fuller said. “If there’s a way to protect them that allows the compost industry to be successful, that’s absolutely what we want to do.”
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