City getting the brush off

By Thomas Wilson
STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   With a state mandate looming, the city of Elizabethton is racing to eliminate a virtual forest of brush collected and stockpiled over the last three years.
   Elizabethton City Council will consider approving bids submitted by six private firms to dispose of existing trees, shrubbery and brush stockpiled at the city's brush yard. The state issued a mandate on April 1 that existing brush must be removed from the city brush yard within 30 days.
   "We've got about three years worth of brush on this pad right now," said Johann Coetzee, director of the Waste Water Treatment Plant. "We want to stockpile for one year and then evaluate the program after that."
   The city initially planned to give the council accompanying bids for a five-year commercial brush disposal program. However, Coetzee said the city was facing problems funding an ongoing brush disposal program.
   City Council passed an ordinance in December 2003 setting a fee of $32 per ton to residents who request a city brush truck pick up shrubbery debris. The charge originated after residents and commercial landscaping firms cut trees and left disposal to the city's street department.
   "The motivation was the brush pick up system was being abused," Coetzee said. "It is becoming costly for the city to process brush."
   The ordinance became effective March 1. According to city statistics, street department crews collected a minimum of 43 tons of brush between March 1 and March 24. While the fee does not apply to brush amounts less than one ton, the charge has not been well received by some city residents.
   The city transports its collected solid waste and brush to the Iris Glen Landfill Facility in Johnson City. The city's finance department estimated the city's cost for disposal at Iris Glen would increase roughly $40,000 this year over last year.
   In 1995, the city of Elizabethton won an award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for composting its biosolids using chipped and shredded yard wastes. However, the city discontinued the composting program last year. Coetzee said the impetus to end the compost program came from high labor costs, a diminishing agricultural base in need of compost fertilizer and the city's efforts to improve wastewater dispensation levels for local industries.
   "Our agricultural base is shrinking," he said.
   Federal environmental regulations determine the amount of pollutants allowed in the compost. Federal law also sets limits of pollutants discharged into the city waste water system.
   Private industries are required by law to treat their industrial waste discharged into the sewer system. By ending the composting program, the city eases the burden on industry discharge limits.
   By not composting and putting the waste water sludge in the landfill, the city will be able to slow down any further decreases our industries might see in the future, Coetzee said.
   "We cannot reduce limits once they are set, but we can slow down the reduction of limits," he said. "Instead of mulching we are now going to dispose of the brush commercially."