Days before he left office in December, County Executive Isiah Leggett agreed to extend a contract with the company that runs Montgomery County’s trash incinerator until April 1, 2026, to provide more time to find rubbish-disposal alternatives.
Covanta, the incinerator operator, had wanted a 20-year extension during nearly a year’s worth of negotiations but Leggett believed an additional five years was reasonable and was necessary because he didn’t see alternatives other than shipping the trash to other landfills or incinerators.
The decision, which Leggett said he reached after informal discussions with the County Council, raises new questions about whether County Executive Marc Elrich will be able to shut the Dickerson incinerator by 2022, something he pledged to do during his campaign.
Ending the contract early could cost the county millions of dollars in higher fees to haul trash out of the county and to tear down the plant along the Potomac River.
“I have real challenges about sending significant amounts of waste into small minority communities in Virginia or inner-city Baltimore,” Leggett said. “If you look at Montgomery County, we are doing a fair amount of recycling above the norm. But it will take several years to get us significantly beyond where we are today.”
Elrich and his new environmental protection department chief have yet to announce what would happen to the 1,800 tons of trash burned each day in Dickerson. Heat from the plant is used to generate electricity.
A spokesman for the county executive said Elrich, then still a County Council member, was not aware of the contract renewal at the time Leggett signed it. Asked whether Elrich still planned to opt out of the contract in 2022, Gyapong declined to speculate.
“He [Elrich] has a contract in front of him. He is reviewing the contract and exploring his options,” said Ohene Gyapong, the spokesman.
Council member Hans Riemer, who was council president, said the county executive hadn’t informed the council of the extension, although Leggett had done so during previous contract updates.
Riemer said five years seemed to be a reasonable period to find alternative trash disposal methods, and that he didn’t understand why Elrich was “emphatic” about closing the incinerator before the 2026 deadline.
In a Nov. 16, 2018, letter, Leggett wrote to Christopher Skaggs, the executive director of Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, an independent state agency, saying if the county were to shift away from the incinerator before 2026, it would result in an additional $18 million in increased costs per year.
“As there is no active landfill within the County, and the Transfer Station is not configured to send waste to landfills by rail, a shift to landfilling would also necessitate approximately 30,000 tractor trailer roundtrips per year, to facilities located between 70 and 150 miles away from our Transfer Station,” Leggett wrote.
Covanta began operating the incinerator in 1995 and reached a formal contract with the county on April 1, 1996, with the county executive having the authority to renew or opt out at any time, Skaggs said.
Leggett periodically extended the contract during his 12-year administration.
Skaggs said the contract allows the county to get out of the agreement at any time, provided that the county pays “wrap up costs,” or the cost of demolishing the incinerator.
There is no “termination for convenience” fee, Skaggs said, which in some situations would be paid back to the contractor if the government exits early.
Skaggs said he was aware of Elrich’s pledge to close the incinerator, and said the county has the final word on any contract with Covanta, although he hoped Elrich would discuss any exit plans with him.
“I would imagine he [Elrich] would go proper channels to do that,” Skaggs said.
In an interview this week, Leggett acknowledged that Elrich could close the incinerator early.
“He [Elrich] may be able to do that if he can find viable options,” he said.
Dan Schere can be reached at Daniel.firstname.lastname@example.org