California Waste Solutions 10th Street facility during a Feb. 28, 2017, inspection. CalRecycle photo.

Garbage out

When the Oakland City Council turned over the city’s entire recycling contract to a small, local company in 2015, it intended to move forward with a plan already under consideration for at least six years to help California Waste Solutions move to public land on the former Oakland Army Base. But that plan appears to have stalled amid an increasingly bitter legal fight with the city while neighbors complain that the company’s current West Oakland facility can’t keep up.

Prior to 2015, California Waste Solutions, or CWS, had handled half the city’s recycling contract and was looking to grow. The council made a bold move to hand over its entire trash pickup service to CWS but eventually reconsidered after current provider, Waste Management, sued. The city agreed to a compromise to have CWS handle the recycling pickup for the entire city while Waste Management handled trash and compost pickup.

But even then there were doubts that the current CWS facilities at 11th and Pine streets and on Wood Street would be able to handle doubling its recycling business. According to city records from during the trash debate in 2014, to take on the larger contract, CWS would need to add additional processing equipment and a second shift until 9 p.m. at its 11th and Pine location.

Nearby residents say two years later, CWS’s current facility is struggling with the volume from ramping up its service from 83,000 to 165,000 households. There have been complaints from neighbors that trash is piling up inside and outside the CWS facility, filling the community with the stench of garbage and attracting rats.

Daniel Burns, a resident of the Pacific Cannery Lofts on Pine Street for the last five years, said his window overlooks the CWS yard, and he has noticed that since taking on the new contract, it’s consistently full of trash. “Their yard can’t handle all the volume that’s coming in there. They used to pretty much clean out the yard every week,” Burns said. “Since they got the citywide [contract], the yard has been almost completely full and is overflowing.

“I’m glad they got the contract … but if you can’t handle it, that’s a problem,” Burns said.

The view from Daniel Burns' apartment. Photo courtesy Daniel Burns.
The view from Daniel Burns’ apartment. Photo courtesy Daniel Burns.

There have also been frequent complaints about rats in the area. While rain led to a spike in rodent sightings all over the county in the second half of 2016, reports of rodents in the area of CWS more than doubled in 2015—the year CWS took over the citywide contract.

According to data provided by Alameda County Vector Control Services, the county received 17 rodent requests for service within a mile of the CWS facility at 11th and Pine in 2014 and 35 in 2015. In 2016, there were 34 requests for service, and this year there had already been 16 as of Aug. 1.

“They have had some challenges in keeping up with the volume. We have received community complaints, there’s some concerns about that,” said Assistant City Administrator Claudia Cappio, who has been working on negotiations to move the recycler to the Army Base.

CWS Chief Operating Officer Saeed Yousuf said the company was keeping its yard clean and moving forward on the relocation project. He also blamed illegal dumpers for creating problems.

The city has set aside two parcels of land in the North Gateway area on the Army Base, a narrow strip north of West Grand Avenue, for CWS and another West Oakland recycler. The Army Base property was turned over to the city in 2000, and it’s been working to develop it since, including negotiating a spot for the recyclers for at least eight years. City records indicate that a joint proposal between CWS and Custom Alloy Scrap Sales, or CASS, to share a portion of the North Gateway site was discussed in a closed session of the Oakland Redevelopment Agency as early as April 21, 2009.

In May 2011, the East Bay Express reported that CWS and CASS were working on a plan to move there, with some community groups pressuring CASS to move because of air quality concerns from on-site smelting. In November of that year, CASS and CWS submitted to the city a joint letter of intent to develop 23 acres of the property and invest a minimum of $60 million to develop it.

Cappio said the city is in negotiations to move the recyclers to a new facility on the old Army Base and expects the city council to take up the matter next year, calling it a “big priority” for the city because the business’s growth has made it incompatible with recent development in West Oakland. Public improvements to the North Gateway are underway and expected to be finished by the end of this year, she said.

But a nasty legal fight between the city and CWS may have set back the negotiations. The city sued CWS in March, and the case doesn’t appear to be anywhere near conclusion. CWS recently accused the city of costing it millions of dollars in revenue, while the city contends that CWS has been substantially overcharging Oakland residents (see “A Waste of Money,” May).

The city is accusing CWS of exploiting a mistake in the contract language and charging apartment building owners exorbitant rates for “push service,” or bringing recycling carts to the curbside for collection. The contract should have specified a fixed rate for the regular plastic bins, but instead the company is charging rates intended for larger metal bins, according to the city. In a March 20 filing, attorneys for the city called the charges “unconscionable” and “outrageous.”

CWS has denied the city’s allegations, saying that the contract as written is correct. In fact, in a July 21 case management statement, CWS accused the city of costing it $2.8 million by interfering with its billing and payment processes and overestimating the number of customers it would be servicing under the larger contract.

Cappio declined to say whether the lawsuit has affected the city’s negotiations with CWS, but did say, “We’re further along with CASS than CWS, but we’re pursuing both deals.”