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Private waste haulers—such as Houston-based Waste Management Inc.—usually meet with their municipal clients' satisfaction. However, should they falter in hitting the mark on environmental regulations, it's up to the clients to keep an eye on them and set them straight, or face possible consequences. Photo: Arin Hailey

River Shannon Recycling was raking it in. The Riverdale, Ill., solid-waste contractor held lucrative contracts, including a deal with the city of Chicago that amounted to about $81,000 annually to recycle fluorescent light bulbs, and an additional $100,000 in state recycling grants.

But instead of recycling those bulbs, Riverdale's village attorney alleges, River Shannon allowed them to sit there, effectively turning the recycling center into an illegal hazardous-waste site. If the court sides with the village, the company could have to fork over $4 million. Additional legal action by the state and U.S. EPA could boost that number even higher.

Had the county or cities that contracted with River Shannon done some digging, they might have come across a few red flags and taken their business elsewhere, avoiding headaches.

In 1981, for example, the owner was convicted of bribing Cook County officials to obtain tax breaks that amounted to millions. And Raymond Akers Jr., the county's solid-waste coordinator, had vouched for River Shannon, asserting that the company was in compliance with both state and county recycling regulations. The former lobbyist for Waste Management of Illinois had been convicted seven years ago for paying bribes to a Chicago alderman.

If the myriad civil suits and criminal charges against River Shannon's owner stand up, he could go broke and/or to jail. But the county could also face fines or penalties for not doing its homework and ensuring the vendor was suitable for its recycling needs.

Meanwhile, a northern Virginia private hauler has been causing headaches for its clients.

New Vision Disposal and Recycling of Centreville, Va., has been cited for mixing recyclables in with the trash, unauthorized dumping at landfills, and performing pickups in improperly equipped vehicles. The violations could mean stiff fines for New Vision's clients, who serve more than 40,000 residents. But because garbage is picked up on time and there's a dearth of available vendors, public works officials find themselves on the horns of a dilemma.

“It's a very fine tightrope that we're walking,” says Charles Forbes, Fairfax County's solid-waste enforcement chief. “This is a critical public service that's being provided by the private sector.” When a hauler steps out of line, it's often not the vendor that's held responsible for violations, but the vendor's client.

When an infrastructure agency faces fines, it has to weigh two unsavory options: force the vendor to pay the fine and risk losing the contract, or keep the service and swallow the penalty.

Considering the number of vendors, trucks, and facilities public works officials oversee, monitoring operations and catching violations is difficult.

Monitoring helps, as do agency-imposed fines; officials in Prince William County plan to fine New Vision $1000 and bar the company from using the county landfill for one day. Such punitive measures seem to have an impact on the contractor.

“I've made a lot of mistakes,” says New Vision owner Ishmael Wright. “But I know better now.”