Augusta's commissioners and legislators appear to be at odds over the city's plan to require garbage haulers to use compressed natural gas to fuel their vehicles.
Sen. J.B. Powell, D-Blythe, told his colleagues during a delegation meeting Wednesday that he doesn't want any independent hauling contractors to be harmed by the expense of converting their vehicles to burn the gas, an expense that larger, national companies have agreed to absorb.
"I think it becomes our concern when you start to regulate business and reduce the competition levels," he said.
Powell said if the commission doesn't remove the requirement when it meets today, he will draft a letter of opposition to the commission and ask every member of the delegation to sign.
None of the legislators said Wednesday that they would refuse to sign.
"If they don't listen to what we're trying to tell them, then I might be willing to introduce a bill," Powell said. "... I don't think we can sit here and let them mandate what private business can do."
Augusta Commissioner Joe Jackson, a member of the committee that agreed last week to require the compressed natural gas as the fuel source for Augusta's solid waste collection contract, called Powell's move "a threatening tactic."
"I think that if it's good for Augusta, it hurts somebody else's pocketbook," Jackson said. "I think it all boils down to money."
Augusta commissioners say the $20 million investment the city will make to convert methane to CNG, require the new hauler to use the fuel and run the excess into an existing, nearby Southern Natural Gas pipeline is the best use of a product the EPA requires it to dispose of safely.
"If you can make a profit out of it or you can flush it down the toilet what would you do?" Jackson said.
If the city doesn't upgrade to produce CNG, it will still have to make $9 million in changes at the landfill to meet EPA requirements, Augusta Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson has said.
But Rep. Earnest Smith, D-Augusta, said the vehicle conversion could be so expensive that it would make smaller companies give up their hauling contracts to the national companies.
"I think that's something we need to look at," he said.
Powell predicted that if the small companies lost out, the remaining national firms would use their dominance to eventually boost hauling rates.
Selling the unused gas is a good idea, he said, which would justify the expense of installing equipment to capture it and convert it to a usable form.
Jackson, who added that he "hadn't made the connecting dots" regarding Powell's opposition, said federal grants are available to help waste haulers convert their equipment. The actual requirement to have an all-natural-gas fleet likely wouldn't be mandatory for at least five years, he said.
Two other Augusta commissioners, Jerry Brigham and Matt Aitken, said they hadn't heard about the legislative delegation's opposition.
"I suspect the people know it's better not to threaten me," Brigham said. "I think it's just the whole, 'Look at me, I'm the big boy. I can just be a schoolyard bully.' "
Brigham gave his support to the $20 million plan, and questioned the impact of requiring waste haulers to convert their equipment.
"I think it's something we ought to do to help with the quality of our air and the containment policies. Plus it would give us an opportunity to use the methane that we are generating to enhance our fleet," he said.
Waste haulers, like all businesses, "ought to be able to upgrade their equipment," Brigham said. "Things change, and when you're in business, you have different requirements always being put on you. The state's good at putting requirements on us."
AITKEN SAID that the commission had viewed the move only as a positive use for excess methane at the landfill.
"We have to do something with that gas," he said. "It's going to have to be dealt with."
But by Wednesday night, Commissioner Corey Johnson, chairman of the engineering committee that approved the measures last week, said he was reconsidering the need to make waste haulers run CNG-powered vehicles.
"I think there's other ways we can generate the funds," Johnson said. "We've got to look at it in a way to not ... monopolize the process."
While the deadline for introducing viable statewide bills passed Friday, local legislation that impacts single cities or counties can still be introduced. Passage depends on the agreement of a majority of that city's local legislators in the House and the Senate.
Sen. Hardie Davis said he was not familiar enough with the commission's plans to make a determination.
"I think there's an appropriate level of concern, and I don't know enough about what's being suggested," Davis said. "When you do have a system in place that's working, don't hinder small businesses at a time when people desperately need jobs."