Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Why doesn't waste collector speak out? It can't

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Emterra, our principal garbage collector and only recycler, has put up with a lot of trash talk from citizens, city councillors and, yes, even newspaper columnists since it began what was supposed to be a green and automated service back in the fall of 2012.

Yet Emterra has never uttered a word in its own defence.

Even when some councillors, including John Orlikow -- who used to operate a recycling company -- have been suggesting that the city dump its five-year deal with Emterra.

So why doesn't the company take media calls and speak up for itself?

Because Emterra has been gagged.

A clause in its collection contract prohibits comment on work done for the city. One would think, then, if Emterra can't speak for itself, the city -- which implemented the gag order -- would go out of its way to speak for it.

But that's not what I've been hearing from the city.

At least not until I asked.

On Wednesday, I spoke on the phone with Darryl Drohomerski, the city's manager of solid waste services. He also happens to be a neighbour who lives just around the corner, so you know what kind of service we get on our garbage-collection day. And I, for one, have never complained about Emterra's pickups from my driveway.

But last month, Drohomerski's department reported Emterra missed approximately 31,000 garbage and recycling pickups in its first full year of service. That sounds like a lot. So I asked him how Emterra and BFI, the city's other garbage collector, have been doing recently.

"It's pretty much where we expect the collection to be. More or less. The last month or two have actually been very good... once we got out of the real cold, snowy weather. We've had a lot of seasonal impacts this year."

Yeah, makes one wonder how the garbage collection went when the city didn't plow back lanes in a timely way or, when they did, how the trucks managed to reach the carts behind the windrows.

Whose fault was that?

Anyway, what Drohomerski's department didn't report, but he revealed during the interview, is those were only "raw numbers." Meaning the total number of complaints received on 311. Not the number of complaints Emterra was judged legitimately responsible for after the city investigated. The collection contract is, after all, a performance-based contract with fines of $100 per miss for starters. Do the math. At $100 and 31,000 complaints, that's $3.1 million.

That's if the city actually found them responsible for all those missed pickups and fined them accordingly. But, citing the contract, Drohomerski won't talk about fines.

As for why the city reports raw rather than real numbers, he suggested it's because it wants consistency in its statistics. One would think the city would put accuracy and fairness ahead of consistency. Remember, Emterra can't say anything about anything, even misleading numbers.

So what are the real, rather than raw numbers? How many were "realistic complaints," as Drohomerski referred to them, and how many weren't?

He didn't offer a number, even a ballpark one, which I thought was surprising since the city has those numbers and he's the head of the department that gathers and validates them. And the real numbers are the ones they should be reporting publicly.

I asked Drohomerski if he could supply them.

"The answer is I'd have to ask my boss. If they're OK with that then absolutely we can. I can certainly make that request tomorrow morning."

It took him two mornings and well into Friday afternoon before he got back to me. He said after a quick look, there's only about 200 of the 31,000 complaints that weren't legitimate.

So, essentially, the numbers as reported stand. Raw is as good as real.

But beyond a natural instinct to distrust anything the city says, there's the "quick" look and vague aspect to his answer, and not knowing what criteria the city used to judge raw from real. What adds to my skepticism is something else Drohomerski said Wednesday while trying to explain how the city accounts for "realistic complaints."

He referred to last May, when the yard-waste program was starting up, and there was a flood of complaints.

"You know we went to investigate all of them... and corrective work was done. So whether or not some of them were deemed to be not correct we still counted them."

Anyway, there's a happy ending to this story.

A few weeks ago, Emterra managed to find a way to legally slip out of its gag by running ads in Winnipeg newspapers that referred to the city's 31,000 missed pickups last year and made the number more real.

"Emterra collected from over 17,420,000 dwellings last year," the ad read, "achieving a performance rate topping 99.8 per cent."

And, then, in large print, the company forbidden from speaking for itself had the last laugh:

"Our Record Says it All."


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 B1

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