Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Emterra, city both dirty in garbage mess

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Garbage is messy. Everyone knows that. But if you're a municipal politician, you simply cannot afford to let the mess get out of control, especially when it comes to garbage collection.

Winnipeg city council is learning just how painful it can be when someone messes up on a messy job. The transition to a new private contractor collecting garbage from new rolling bins has been an unmitigated failure. And that's putting it mildly.

For most of the last month, garbage collection has been days behind schedule. Homeowners have seen recycling collected on one day, and then several days go by before normal refuse and yard waste is collected. Thankfully, someone had the foresight to roll out the new system during a chilly October. Had it been July, this could have been one incredibly stinky mess.

It's getting better, but it's still a long way off from being a well-oiled machine. That means it's time to start thinking about who or what is to blame for this garbage mess.

Emterra, the private contractor that not only picks up our refuse but also operates a sorting and recycling plant, must take the lion's share of the blame. Emterra is a national garbage contractor, with quite a roster of engagements with contractors in British Columbia and Ontario. Although every municipality is slightly different in terms of garbage-collection needs, a company with Emterra's experience should be able to better judge the number of trucks and employees it needs to collect our trash in a timely fashion.

Given the fact we've all agreed to organize our trash -- with regular trash in the black bins and recyclables in the blue bins -- you might guess it would take less time than when we just put out whatever we wanted in whatever we could find. You would think.

Emterra has had these troubles before. In B.C., Emterra lost contracts after it could not deliver timely collection. However, it deserves to be said the Victoria-based company has delivered on time and on budget in far more communities than it has failed.

The city itself also bears some responsibility here, although you wouldn't know that from listening to Mayor Sam Katz over the last week. With councillors straining under the weight of constituent phone messages and emails complaining about the pokey garbage collection, Katz went on the offensive to make sure everyone knew Emterra was the main culprit.

A few days into the garbage mess, Katz turned all attention to the municipal contractor. "This is an issue where a new company won a bid, competing with others, and they obviously were not set on Day 1 to get the job done," Katz said.

The mayor's analysis is essentially sound; it appears patently clear Emterra did not have the trucks and human resources in place to manage the new system. However, one must also wonder where the city's own people were when Emterra was prepping for its work. This was, after all, a contractor who won a fair bidding process in which all of the details of Emterra's preparation and resources were made available to city officials. Did no one at the city have any idea resources were not in place to do collection in a timely manner?

One of the more worrisome aspects of this story is a directive from the city that prevents Emterra from talking with the media. That could have been a knee-jerk reaction by someone in the city who was already worried about the rising tide of public complaints. We must also leave open the possibility the city itself was somehow culpable in the screw-up.

In any great logistical challenge, unforeseen factors can derail even the best-laid plans. In fairness to Emterra, we really should have had a chance to find out from the contractor itself why the rollout of the new system was so bad.

The city fought a landmark battle with its unions to take garbage collection private. Its officials were at the table (we assume) with eyes and ears wide open, listening to pitches from private contractors who aspired to collect and dispose of Winnipeg's refuse. It is simply unacceptable for the city to act shocked when that carefully considered, meticulously selected contractor falls flat on its face.

Emterra's failure in these early days of a new garbage-collection system was the city's failure as well. We'd all benefit from a full airing of exactly how, working in tandem, they both let Winnipeggers down.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 29, 2012 A5

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