Metro, county look into trash-level misreporting

Once called a model facility, recycler now under investigation

A recycling company that officials have touted as a showcase of the possibilities for rescuing trash from landfills may face legal action from Metro over potential discrepancies in records the business submitted to qualify for fee breaks.

Metro, assisted by two Multnomah County sheriff's detectives, is investigating East County Recycling to determine if the business accurately reported the amount of garbage and recycling it processed. ECR is one of five major recyclers licensed by Metro - the regional garbage, parks and planning agency - to operate in the tri-county region.

Located at 12409 N.E. San Rafael St., ECR covers an area equivalent to several large football fields, and a steady flow of pickups and dump trucks go there to drop off lumber, junk, cardboard, construction debris and other loads of 'dry' garbage that does not include food waste. There, dozens of workmen in hard hats use payloaders and bulldozers to sort trash and cull recyclable materials, which are then sold to recycling companies.

Metro requires all designated materials-recovery facilities like ECR to meet a minimum level of recycling of 25 percent of the waste disposed there. If a facility recovers 30 percent or more of its waste, however, it then qualifies for fee breaks on the garbage it disposes of through the Metro system.

Called regional system fee credits, those fee breaks are at the heart of the issue now facing ECR.

At issue is whether ECR correctly reported its waste loads and recycling rate to Metro over the years. Metro General Counsel Dan Cooper confirmed that 'there's an ongoing investigation' but declined to elaborate. However, the investigation could lead to a civil lawsuit if the agency tries to recover any unpaid garbage fees.

At press time, both Ralph and Vince Gilbert, the father-son team that owns ECR, did not return calls from the Portland Tribune.

Metro is examining the company's records going back for years, meaning hundreds of thousands of dollars or more could be at stake. According to Metro records, ECR has earned $3.5 million in fee credits since 1998.

That's more than double the credits earned by its next closest competitor, Willamette Resources. It's also more than half the total amount of credits that Metro has awarded recovery facilities in the region in the last eight years.

While cities and counties regulate the garbage companies that pick up trash and recycling, Metro is the agency that regulates trash disposal in most of Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties. Companies, including materials-recovery facilities such as ECR, normally pay about $71 a ton to dispose of waste at Metro sites called transfer stations.

If a recovery facility qualifies for the regional system fee credit, it pays $5 less per ton of garbage disposed with Metro than it would otherwise. Some materials-recovery facilities dispose of tens of thousands tons of waste per year. The waste is then shipped to a landfill near Arlington, in the Columbia River Gorge.

The investigation is being conducted by Metro officials in conjunction with two Multnomah County sheriff's office detectives assigned to Metro. The detectives have conducted interviews to try to figure out what is going on. According to the Multnomah County sheriff's office, the two detectives have concluded their initial investigation, though follow-up may be necessary.

Metro has changed its criteria for awarding fee credits multiple times since the program began. One informed source said the investigation is looking at whether the type of loads that ECR reported receiving changed each time Metro changed its critieria. If so, the investigators are trying to determine whether the corresponding ECR changes increasing the total fee credits the company received.

According to the case-tracking system of the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, the case has not been formally submitted to prosecutors for a determination on whether to press charges. It is unclear if the investigation could be the basis solely for a potential civil lawsuit or whether it could be pursued criminally as well.

The system fee credit is intended to prevent companies from simply dumping recyclables - as reportedly has occurred at times. It does so by setting up incentives to recycle.