Waste Management helped customers with form letters

Friday, March 12, 2010

Waste Management helped Middle Tennesseans tell the state to permit expansion of Cedar Ridge Landfill, but that self-serving effort was more of a response to requests than a campaign, a company leader said this week.

Waste Management Business Development Manager Robert Cheney explained the genesis of what happened during a telephone call on Tuesday when a couple of specific letters were discussed and he was asked if the company had provided form letters.

Some letters were made available to residents who offered to help Waste Management persuade the state to grant an expansion permit, Chaney said. They were made available as a model for what residents could send to the state.

Without an expansion permit, the landfill will run out of space to bury garbage. That might lead to closure of the landfill this year and the resulting issues for local governments, trash collection and funding. One solution would lead to a $160 per year fee for each residence not in a municipality.

Some 687 letters were sent to the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation in response to its call for public comment on expansion of the landfill. Of those, 668 letters supported expansion. Many contained the same phrases. A couple of them said, "These enviro-nut-jobs only want to stop landfills..."

Even more argued the same point, and many used the same sentences.

But they were from real people, including Waste Management employees who, Cheney argues, have the most to lose if the landfill is closed, and besides, they have citizen rights, too.

The "genesis of the situation," Cheney said, is rooted in TDEC Commissioner Jim Fykes' decision in December against proceeding toward granting a permit for expansion. Before finalizing that, however, he asked for public comment.

Fyke has three options now: grant the permit, deny it, or extend the comment period.

"We received so many calls from customers, non-customers and the public asking, 'What can we do?'" Cheney said. "We told them there was a public comment period" for letters to the department.

"Most... agreed to do that," he continued. "Some said 'I am not intimately involved in the process (of permitting expansion.) Some wanted talking points. Some wanted letters that they could sign.

"We generated several different letters. Some people wrote their own," Cheney said. "Some decided to use the ones we created, but obviously many sent letters."

On the morning of Feb. 26, three hours were used by the Tribune for a random review of the letters. They're in large, brown manila, accordion envelopes with several regular file folders therein. They're well organized.

There's a file of duplicate letters from people who sent their comments twice. Those letters were not included in the total of letters reported here today and on March 3.

Asked about letters that are similar, or practically identical except for the signature and return address, Cheney commented, "If there was more than one, it probably is" one of the letters the company provided to its supporters. "I've not looked and I've not asked who the author of that is."

He emphasized that's probable, "but I don't really know."

The company was reacting to requests, he said.

"We had some customers who wrote letters and sent them to us," Cheney continued. "We then contacted them and said, "This is a great letter. Could we share it with others?"

As for how many letters were generated through Waste Management, Cheney responded cautiously.

"I would say there were several letters generated and individuals selected them... This was in response to: 'We want to help. How can we?'

"I certainly want everyone to participate in the public comment period who wants to," the company's business developer said, conceding, "It is an emotional issue."