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Pocahontas Solid Waste Authority sues 400 residents over 'green box' fee

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the past six years, the Pocahontas County Solid Waste Authority has sued more than 400 county residents, about 5 percent of the entire county, for not paying fees associated with the county's unique "green box" trash program.

And those fees, based on local regulations, appear to be in conflict with state code.

Among those who have been sued are a current board member of the Solid Waste Authority and the former president of the board.

Like many rural counties, trash collection is limited in Pocahontas County, there is only one collection company, Allegheny Disposal, and it is primarily used by businesses.

Almost everyone who doesn't hire Allegheny Disposal is required to pay a $98 annual fee for the privilege of using the "green boxes," collection sites throughout the county where residents can drop off trash.

That fee applies to everybody with property in Pocahontas County, even those who stay in the county as little as one night a year and produce no trash.

Every other county that has similar drop off locations charges by the amount of trash that residents drop off, not a flat fee.

Doug Bernier, the board member who was sued by the Solid Waste Authority, said that the flat fee system offers no incentive for people to cut down on their trash and recycle, and instead makes the landfill the de facto first choice.

"The fellow who hauls a pickup load of trash to the green boxes every week is paying the same fee as the widow who might take a little bag every two months," Bernier said. "Compared to counties that don't have landfills, or ones in more metropolitan areas, $98 per year is a bargain. It is a very expensive proposition to operate a landfill. It's expensive to bury all this trash, which is all the more reason to bury as little of it as possible."

West Virginia code says that all residents need to either pay a garbage collection fee or prove that they dispose of their trash "at least once within every thirty-day period at approved solid waste facilities or in any other lawful manner."

The Pocahontas County Solid Waste Authority will waive the annual fee if residents can prove that they drop their trash off at the landfill on the free drop off day, the last Tuesday of each month. But miss just one Tuesday, and residents are back on the hook for the $98 fee.

And county residents say that the Solid Waste Authority is not letting them dispose of their trash in "any other lawful manner," as mandated by state code.

Jerry Heinemann, a county resident, was sued for not paying the green box fees, but he says that he disposes of all his trash in a lawful manner, and should not have to pay for the green boxes that he doesn't use.

In a sworn affidavit in Pocahontas County Circuit Court, Heinemann says that he takes glass recyclables to the Greenbrier County Recycling Center, he sells metal recyclables to the center in Elkins, he takes plastic to the recycling center at the Walmart in Elkins, he uses paper and cardboard to start his wood stove and he composts all table scraps.

It seems unlikely that the hundreds of residents sued for not paying their fees are as conscientious about their trash as Heinemann, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they weren't disposing of their trash in a "lawful manner."

Many of those who were sued are not full time Pocahontas County residents and carry their trash out with them when they leave.

"If you live in Charleston and have a camp here and you stay here one night you have to pay the yearly fee," Heinemann said. "They say you can't take your potato chip bags back with you."

Mary Clendenen, the administrator for the Solid Waste Authority, said that the fee is assessed to every building in the county, regardless of who lives there.

"Our solid waste assessment fee is an annual fee for each structure or shelter in which a person spends one or more nights per year," Clendenen said.

She said that the majority of residents pay on time, but when people don't pay they have to collect through the courts.

Bernier said that despite his position on the Solid Waste Authority board, he's basically been outvoted when it comes to the flat fee on all residents for trash disposal.

"This system works well for the majority of the people in the county," Bernier said. "The county's probably cleaner than it was 20 years ago, less trash going over the hill, fewer illegal dumps; but that doesn't make the system lawful."

Reach David Gutman at david.gutman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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