International Case Study

180° Turnaround for a Solid Waste Management System: The Guam Story and Lessons Learned

Transforming a solid waste management system from dysfunctional procedures to efficient operations, including a state-of-the-art landfill that will service the island for at least another 40 years.

Chace Anderson

On August 31, 2011, as eight-year-old Ordot resident Carina McCarthy and Guam Governor Eddie Calvo locked a gold chain to the gate to Guam’s Ordot Dump, residents and public officials cheered and clapped. The celebration marking the closure of the dump’s 341-foot mountain of trash continued the next day as the first trucks bringing waste arrived at the new Layon Landfill, a state-of-the-art, high-tech, environmentally sound landfill for non-hazardous municipal solid waste.

These two milestones marked a new beginning for the U.S. Territory of Guam. The island’s 25-year history of dysfunctional, mismanaged and politically charged solid waste management had been turned around, not only with the closure of the Ordot Dump and the Layon Landfill’s opening but also with remarkable improvements and efficiencies in solid waste operations and financial management. How these changes occurred, and the lessons they offer for other islands and solid waste systems, is the focus of this article.

The Making of a Solid Waste Crisis

Since the 1940s, the Ordot Dump has been a dumping ground for Guam’s industrial and municipal solid waste. Proper landfill operation procedures at the site, including placement of daily cover and proper waste compaction, were not followed. Used by both the Japanese and U.S. military forces during World War II and owned by the Government of Guam since the 1950s, the Ordot Dump has acted like a sponge, absorbing rainwater and discharging contaminated water into the nearby Lonfit River.

On July 24, 1990, in response to violations of the 1972 Clean Water Act, the U.S. EPA issued an administrative order directing the Guam Department of Public Works (DPW) to cease the discharge of pollutants from the dump. But for years, the discharges and violations of the Clean Water Act continued. On February 11, 2004, the U.S. District Court of Guam approved a Consent Decree (Civil Case No. 02-00022), in which the Government of Guam agreed, among other provisions, to cease the discharge of pollutants from the Ordot Dump, close the Ordot Dump within 45 months and begin implementation of a post-closure plan. In addition, DPW agreed to site, obtain permits for, construct and begin operations of a new municipal sanitary waste landfill within 44 months.

Despite the Consent Decree, the stalemate continued for four more years. On March 17, 2008,Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood of the District Court of Guam, noting lack of progress in complying with the 2004 Consent Decree, appointed Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. (GBB) (Fairfax, VA) as Receiver with full authority to manage, supervise and oversee the Solid Waste Management Division (SWMD) of DPW and bring Guam into compliance with the Consent Decree.

A Dysfunctional Solid Waste Management System

In April 2008, when GBB staff arrived to take over management of the SWMD, they found a solid waste management system plagued by serious operational, financial and administrative problems. The SWMD owned a fleet of trash trucks purchased in the early 1990s. Only one of the trucks was operational, working around the clock using three crew shifts to collect from 12,000 customers with unreliable support from two rented trash trucks that were often sidelined with mechanical problems. Curbside trash collection was weeks behind schedule and customer complaints were very high. Faced with this situation, the Receiver knew that on-time collection was a high priority. 

The working conditions for the 99 SWMD staff members were substandard. Staff had few tools with which to work, showers leaked, kitchen facilities were dirty and staff morale was at an all-time low. The SWMD was spending $11,000 per day on rental equipment and contract operators. In addition, the SWMD’s billing and account management systems were unreliable, and for years, the SWMD had been collecting trash from more than 4,000 non-paying customers. At the Ordot Dump, there was no scale to accurately calculate the tonnage of waste disposed there, and Ordot neighbors complained of odors and garbage fires at the dump. The island also had no recycling program, and no efforts were being made to extend the dump’s diminishing capacity.

Beyond meeting the everyday challenges of turning around the dysfunctional SWMD, the Receiver needed to work with the Government of Guam and its SWMD to achieve full compliance with the 2004 Consent Decree by closing the Ordot Dump; implementing a post-closure plan at the Dump; and obtaining permits for and building a new municipal solid waste landfill at a site already selected by the Government of Guam. The Receiver faced additional challenges, including obtaining zoning approval for the landfill site, dealing with the Government’s inability to pass a workable funding plan for Consent Decree projects; the Guam Treasurer’s unauthorized withdrawals from the SWMD bank account; and disruptions due to the discoveries of ancient remains within the right-of-way of the landfill access road and of a colony of the Guam Tree Snail, an endangered species that needed to be relocated. The Receivership was in a race against time: Could the new landfill be completed before the Ordot Dump reached capacity? Could the dysfunctional solid waste management system be turned around to become reliable, efficient and self-supporting?

The Turnaround

To develop the turnaround plan, the Receiver assembled a multi-disciplinary team of solid waste, procurement, landfill, engineering, financial and communications experts who, in April 2008, presented to the District Court of Guam a roadmap for accomplishing the Consent Decree projects and reforming Guam’s solid waste management system. During the first year of the Receivership, with the District Court’s approval of the plan, GBB staff placed priority on taking immediate steps to improve customer service and financial accountability, reduce costs through operational efficiencies, preserve disposal space at the Ordot Dump until the new landfill could be built, and address the long-term issues of financing Consent Decree projects—all while managing the design, permitting and construction of the Layon Landfill. Virtually no aspect of solid waste management remained untouched during the first year (see Operations Reforms sidebar).

Three and a half years after the appointment of the Receiver, a visit to Guam’s neighborhoods on collection day reveals signs of the transformation that has taken place. The SWMD’s 17,000 customers each have a 95-gallon trash cart, which has reduced litter and improved the appearance of neighborhoods compared to the unsightly metal cages that held trashcans and bags before the Receiver arrived.

Another sign of change and the new efficiencies is that 99.7 percent of trash collections now are made on time, thanks to new trucks and reliable equipment and a motivated work force. With the SWMD’s new billing and customer service system, RFID tags on trash carts and policies to ensure that only paying customers receive service, the number of delinquent residential accounts declined from 15 percent in September 2010 to 3.9 percent in August 2011. Policies also are in place to encourage timely payment from commercial customers.

GBB has also implemented collection of bulky waste and a pilot curbside recycling project for 1,000 households, with plans to evaluate the feasibility of rolling out curbside recycling collection island-wide in the future. In a further sign of change, the SWMD, which has reduced staff from 99 to 54, in June 2011 became the Guam Solid Waste Authority (GSWA), independent of the DPW. And in October 2011, the Receiver reached an agreement with the military to begin using the Layon Landfill for disposal of non-hazardous waste from its facilities on Guam.

All these accomplishments took place even as the SWMD, now GSWA, was operating significantly below its approved budget—46 percent below budget in the most recent quarter. With the opening of the new landfill, costs will now increase to ensure that it is properly operated, debt service is paid on the bonds, and reserves are set aside for future needs. To address the cost of the new system, new fees have been phased in for residential and commercial customers, helping to make the solid waste system self-supporting. In addition, capital savings in excess of $37 million have been achieved, largely due to the careful management of the contracts for design, permitting and construction of the Layon Landfill and its supporting infrastructure.

The Receiver’s Work Continues

The Receiver’s work did not conclude with the ceremonies that closed the dump and opened the landfill. Staff will oversee procurement and contracts for the installation of an interim and final cap on the Ordot Dump, which will divert storm water that contributes to leachate, as well as additional remediation. In addition, GBB will provide technical and monitoring support to the operator of the Layon Landfill. In the operations area, there are plans to build a new transfer station to replace the facility at the Ordot Dump, upgrade the existing three transfer stations to bring them into compliance with regulatory standards, and implement a household hazardous waste program on the island. Once the curbside recycling pilot program concludes and collection data are analyzed, the decision will be made whether to proceed with island-wide recycling collection.

Although the work continues, Guam’s residents now have a transformed solid waste management system that serves them well with a state-of-the-art landfill, with a capacity in excess of 15.8 million cubic yards, which will service the island for at least another 40 years. In a September 2, 2011, Court Order that she issued following the opening of the Layon Landfill, District Court Chief Judge Frances Tydingco-Gatewood noted that, “Despite [the] challenges, the Receiver has turned the formerly defunct SWMD into an efficient, reliable, and self-financing government entity. In addition to improvements at the SWMD, the Receiver has made significant strides in fulfilling the requirements of the Consent Decree.” An August 30, 2011, Pacific Daily News editorial stated, “The federal receiver, Gershman, Brickner & Bratton Inc., has the island’s thanks for fixing and improving the government’s solid waste program … In short, the receiver has transformed the way the island deals with waste.”

Chace Anderson is a vice president of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc. as well as Guam Solid Waste Receiver operations manager for the U.S. Territory of Guam. He can be reached at canderson@gbbinc.com or candersongbb@gmail.com.

Captions

1

Guam residents now use 95-gallon trash carts with RFID tags and a black lid, instead of bags and old trash cans placed in cages. Recycling carts, used for the curbside recycling pilot project, have green lids.

2

The first trash trucks deliver waste to the new Layon Landfill on September 1, 2011.

3

Trash trucks cross the weigh scales to deliver waste to the Layon Landfill. When the Receiver arrived, there were no scales at the Ordot Dump, which closed on August 31, 2011.

Photos courtesy of Gershman, Brickner & Bratton, Inc.

Sidebar

Operations reforms

  • Improved trash collection services, which dramatically reduced customer complaints

  • Repaired vehicles and purchased new equipment to support operational needs

  • Reduced the number of SWMD employees by more than 25 percent as operations were reorganized and streamlined for more efficient organization and delivery of services

  • Achieved significant savings as a result of dramatic reductions in leased equipment and personnel with only $484 spent per day on leased equipment vs. $11,000

  • Dramatically improved working conditions for SWMD employees with functional equipment, working showers and clean kitchen facilities; provided safety shoes and uniforms

  • Implemented a ban on vegetative waste, cardboard and wood at the Ordot Dump, which increased recycling and extended the capacity of the Ordot Dump

  • Added recycling at the Ordot Dump and three transfer stations/convenience centers

  • Completed plans for cart-based residential waste collection services and initiated procurement to implement the plans

Consent Decree projects

  • Prepared cost estimates for Consent Decree projects and established a construction schedule that was approved by the District Court of Guam

  • Received approval of the required rezoning for the Layon Landfill site

  • Completed the hydrogeologic assessment for the Layon Landfill, which was approved by Guam EPA

  • Received approval for initial building permits for the Layon Landfill

  • Developed a process to acquire all needed permits for the Layon Landfill

  • Began construction of Layon Landfill

Financing, capital funding and communications

  • Recommended a method for financing the Consent Decree projects that was accepted by the District Court and subsequently used by the Government of Guam to successfully issue long-term bonds

  • Established a Receiver Trustee account with an initial District Court-ordered deposit of $25 million from the Government of Guam to allow the Consent Decree projects to go forward while the long-term bonding process was completed

  • Put in place a District Court-approved process for controlling solid waste funds that ensured the money was used only for solid waste purposes.

  • Engaged in discussions with the Naval Facilities Engineering Command to encourage military use of the Layon Landfill

  • Established regular communications with the media and public via www.guamsolidwastereceiver.org and ongoing media relations

Sidebar

Lessons learned

For island communities facing solid waste management challenges as well as for mainland solid management waste systems, the Guam story offers some valuable lessons:

  • When major solid waste issues arise, avoid delays in taking action. If the Government of Guam had acted sooner, when it first became evident that the Ordot Dump was polluting the groundwater and Lonfit River, the costs to remedy the problem would have been far lower. The problems were allowed to fester and costs to fix them escalated as time passed.

  • A landfill is a limited resource so it is important to maximize diversion of material away from the landfill. In Guam, the Receiver moved quickly to ban from the landfill vegetative waste, cardboard and wood, resulting in an immediate demand to process and provide new use for these materials.

  • Understand the community, including its traditions and needs. In Guam, the Receiver conducted focus groups and met with the island’s mayors and other leaders before implementing the cart-based trash collection program.

  • Take into account travel time to the island and additional cost when ordering items from the continental U.S. In Guam, the Receiver needed to add time for delivery of new collection trucks, parts, IT equipment, scales, landfill equipment and construction materials.

  • Consider starting small before making any significant change. In Guam, the postal address system is neither uniform nor up-to-date, which made registration for collection service and cart deliveries problematic. To work out any problems, the Receiver tested registration and cart delivery in several of the island’s smaller villages before proceeding to the more populated villages. This strategy gave the Receiver the opportunity to fine-tune the rollout and resulted in a smooth transition island-wide. Currently, the Receiver is conducting a curbside recycling pilot program before making the decision about expanding the program to all of the system’s customers.

  • For any solid waste management system considering a major change, be sure to have an interdisciplinary team involved in planning and execution. The Receiver team included experts in operations, finance, engineering, procurement, landfills and communications as well as people with the political and media relations skills.

  • Remember for whom you work. The strong support and constant guidance of the District Court enabled the Receiver to accomplish the turnaround. As the Receiver, keep the Court fully informed and listen carefully to its guidance.

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