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Coming full cycle: Global recycling slump hasn’t dimmed ambition for local programs

It was a windy Thursday afternoon and customers were driving into Building B of the CARE Center, Campbell County’s recycling facility, to drop off plastic, cardboard and other recyclable materials. They were in and out within a couple of minutes as Paul Candelaria took the bags from their trucks and cars.

Candelaria’s been doing this for three years and can recognize customers just from the cars they drive.

“There’s a new customer,” Candelaria said as a Nissan van pulled up.

As it turns out, it wasn’t a new customer, but it was a new car. Melissa Kaul drove the 12-passenger van into the building. It was filled with kids and cardboard. Blessings in a Backpack was looking for someone to take cardboard to the recycling center. Kaul had some free time, so she volunteered to help out the nonprofit.

When she opened the van’s sliding door, cardboard spilled onto the floor. Four children hopped out and started carrying the cardboard to a big pile in the corner of the building. Alexis, 12, and Isabella, 9, carried armfuls of the material.

Samantha, 7, stuck her feet into a pair of cardboard boxes and slid across the floor with cardboard in her hands. Even 2-year-old Ivy helped, carrying one piece of pasteboard at a time from the van to the pile.

Candelaria handed one of the girls a broom to push the straggling pieces of cardboard into the pile.

Melissa said while it had taken them 30 to 45 minutes to stuff the van with cardboard, it only took them 10 minutes to empty it.

She also pays the $6 a month for the city’s curbside recycling program, because with six kids, all in activities, she doesn’t have a lot of time to stop by to drop stuff off. But the center is a blessing for Blessings in a Backpack.

“They’d be in a real bind if they didn’t have this facility to come and drop off all that cardboard,” she said.

It’s been three years since Campbell County launched its redesigned recycling program, and although the recycling industry has been in a prolonged downturn, the county’s program has been busier than ever.

Candelaria said the CARE Center has never been busier. Last Tuesday, there were 125 customers. The week before that, the previous daily record of 108 was set.

“We’d never broke 100 until two weeks ago,” he said, adding that the recycling center averages 60 people a day. When it first started three years ago, it averaged between 20 and 30 daily customers. In fiscal year 2018-2019, there were 14,325 customers who recycled 830 tons, or nearly twice the amount of people and tonnage that came through the first year it was open.

Candelaria and Gary Jones help customers with their recyclables, and the building’s two resident cats, Max and Oliver, keep a watchful eye. And against a wall, a shelf with old books from the library has been set up, free for children to take home.

They’ve developed relationships with their customers, many of whom come at least once a week, Candelaria said.

Environmental Services Manager Matt Olsen said that since the county’s free program started, it’s seen 32,000 customers and has received 2,123 tons, or 4.25 million pounds, of recyclables.

The curbside blue bag program was draining money from the city of Gillette and Campbell County, costing them $130,000 and $342,000, respectively, in 2015. And the county was paying more than $450,000 a year to take the materials away.

The entities spent the spring and summer of 2016 trying to figure out a solution. They ended up with their own separate programs. The county went with a source-separated operation at the old landfill facility on Westover Road and the city contracted with Western Waste Solutions to pick up blue bags of commingled recyclables.

Dave Naughton, owner of Western Waste Solutions, said his company has close to 850 customers in Campbell County. He also has picked up some areas outside of city limits, such as Sleepy Hollow, but as a private hauler and not a contractor for Gillette.

The city’s program accepts aluminum, steel, plastic and glass. It also takes cardboard, which is separate from the blue bags. It does not take paper.

The blue bag program has seen an uptick in cardboard, Naughton said, to the point where it’s “gotten hellacious.”

Naughton’s haulers collect about 14,000 pounds of blue bags and 12,000 pounds of cardboard per month. They then take the material to the recycling center in Rapid City, South Dakota, every two weeks. There, the bags are opened and the materials inside are separated and shipped off.

“We just need more people recycling,” Naughton said. “We have too much going into our landfills today.”

Depressed market

While volumes have been steady or increasing, the prices for recycled materials have dropped and remain low, thanks to China’s National Sword policy.

The recyclables China was getting from the United States were contaminated, so China instituted very strict regulations on what it would accept. It will no longer take America’s commingled recyclables, which it views as “garbage,” Olsen said.

This has flooded the domestic recycling market with material, driving down prices. Plastics and mixed paper aren’t worth anything right now, Olsen said, and even cardboard, which has the most value, is depressed.

In its first year, the CARE Center received 1.17 million pounds of recyclables. In fiscal year 2019, it took in 1.66 million pounds. Despite the nearly half a million-pound increase, revenue dropped slightly, from $61,000 to $56,789.

If the county had stuck with commingled recyclables, “we would be in terrible trouble,” Olsen said. But because it requires people to separate by material, it can ship out those materials, just at reduced revenue.

“Before, as soon as we’d call to say we had a load of something, it could be going out the door the next day,” he said. “Now, we have to wait a week or two.”

On the West Coast, centers are taking thousands of tons of recyclables and sending them to landfills. That’s not the case in Campbell County.

“Our product is really pure and people do actually want it,” Olsen said.

With the growth of online shopping, Olsen foresees cardboard, which can be recycled countless times, being important in the upcoming years.

While it has instituted strict guidelines, China will pay a premium to get pure recyclables, he said. Unfortunately, Campbell County doesn’t generate enough quantities to make it worth shipping to China. The county’s recyclables usually get shipped out to the South or the Pacific Northwest.

In response to the China situation, there are investments being made in the domestic market. Recycling mills are coming back online. But it will be a year or two before this yields results, Olsen said.

“Most everyone’s trying to sit tight, because this has happened before,” he said. “Disruptions happen from time to time.”

No materials have been added or kicked out of the program since it started three years ago.

“If there’s lack of consistency, it frustrates people,” he said. “Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction on things, we try to allow for some room to let things play out. There’s always ebbs and flows. This one’s just been a prolonged downturn.”

Customer service

The county has had many satisfied customers over the last three years. Alton Simon, who lives in Oriva Hills, stops by the recycling center once a week when he’s in town running errands. He drops off a lot of metals and plastics.

His only wish is that the county took more plastics than just Nos. 1 and 2.

“I’m glad they’ve got something going on,” Simon said. “I hate seeing all that plastic going in the landfill.”

Cathy Grekoff stopped by with her 9-year-old dog Foxy to drop off a couple of bags of material. A “loyal” recycler, she really likes the program.

“Heavens, yes, you couldn’t ask for a nicer facility,” she said, adding that it’s cut down on her garbage by half, if not more.

Scott Rankin comes in once a week to drop off recycling from St. Matthew’s Catholic Church and John Paul II Catholic School.

“UPS trucks drop off 10 to 15 boxes a day and it’s got to go somewhere,” he said. “I’m glad we can recycle it instead of throwing it in the garbage.”

Julie McCann dropped off cardboard and shredded paper from Wagonwheel Elementary School. The school has containers in its classrooms for paper, and everyone brings the cardboard to her office.

“I’ve been a big recycler forever,” she said. “It’s just a passion of mine.

She was part of a recycling task force when recycling was just getting started in Gillette.

“It was really difficult to get it going,” she said. “I don’t think people thought about recycling and the effects of it.”

She stopped doing the curbside recycling program because it didn’t take everything, “and it was easiest to bring it all here.”

It’s a wonderful program, she said, and Candelaria and Jones are always friendly and helpful.

All of the customers at the CARE Center are united by one thing: their willingness to recycle, for one reason or another.

“I’m a conservative, but I still believe it’s not a bad thing to be a good custodian of the planet,” Simon said. “People say, ‘just throw it away.’ There is no ‘away.’ It goes somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear.”

News Record Photo/Rhianna Gelhart 

It took a small army of Boys & Girls Club board members and community volunteers to build the props for The Realm of Darkness haunted house.

Former Blackjewel miners itching to get back

If or when Eagle Specialty Materials is ready to hire back former Blackjewel LLC coal miners and ramp up production again, Bob is ready.

“I have already called them when they sent us a letter asking if we would come back,” he said. “I said I would go back.”

A haul truck driver for Blackjewel, Bob is one of nearly 600 Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr mine employees who were abruptly locked out of their jobs without notice July 1.

Not his real name, Bob asked not to be identified because he’s already found another job, but said he would welcome a call back to his job mining coal. He said he wants to be fair to his new employer and not leave that company in a bad way, unlike what happened with Blackjewel.

“If I would get called back, that would be great,” Bob said. “But I want to leave where I’m at on good terms, too. … The way this all happened (with the lockout) left a lot of people hurt.”

Bob said he held out as long as he could in hopes the mines would reopen sooner, but in the end had to take another job, something he said many of his coworkers also have done.

“It’s been really tight money-wise and I just got this other job not even a month ago,” he said. “We drained our savings pretty much all the way, took money out of the 401(k), but you gotta do what you gotta do.

“I’ve run into people who say it’s been really bad for them. They’ve got other jobs and there have been some who went up to Montana and, from what I heard, the ones who got picked up at the other mines (in the Powder River Basin) actually got more money. That’s good for them.”

Just how close that call-back may be coming for Bob and hundreds of other Campbell County coal miners is anyone’s guess. But a significant sign came Friday that it may be soon.

County collects

Sources close to the companies involved say Eagle Specialty Materials may be close to closing its deal to assume ownership of the Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr coal mines.

While an official announcement about the status of the sale hasn’t been made, Campbell County received a $13.5 million payment from Contura Energy on Friday afternoon. That payment was part of the sale deal with Contura Energy Co. to settle a $15.1 million ad valorem tax bill with the county. The $13.5 million was to be paid upon the deal with Eagle Specialty Materials closing.

Campbell County Commission Chairman Rusty Bell confirmed Friday afternoon the payment had come through.

“We’ve got that money. It came in about an hour ago,” he said at about 2:40 p.m. “It’s exciting to see things moving forward.”

Bell said he hasn’t heard yet if a promised $1.8 million payment had been made to cover outstanding wages and benefits still owed to Powder River Basin coal miners who were locked out Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy.

“We want to make sure that $1.8 million for the back pay also gets paid,” he said. “That’s important.”

He also said the county is looking forward to working with ESM and its parent company, Alabama-based FM Coal.

“Let’s see something good happen going forward with a new company and see if they can operate it better than the others, Blackjewel and Contura,” Bell said. That shouldn’t be difficult because “the bar’s pretty low there. … We like the mine plan ESM has and we like that those mines aren’t going to be funneling money anymore to whatever hole Blackjewel is.”

A quick rundown

When the deal officially closes, it also will end a volatile chapter in the lives of the mines, which have been among the nation’s most productive for decades.

Contura bought the mines in 2015 when Alpha Natural Resources auctioned them off in its Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization. Contura then sold the mines to Blackjewel in a deal where Blackjewel didn’t pay any money up front and instead assumed debt associated with the mines.

Less than two years later, Blackjewel had not only failed to pay that assumed debt, it also piled up more than $100 million of its own in unpaid royalties, taxes and bills from its vendors. A bankruptcy filing the morning of July 1 was followed hours later by a sudden shutdown of all Blackjewel operations in Wyoming, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. The move also locked out about 1,700 workers, including 580 at the Wyoming mines.

Still on the hook for more than $230 million worth of reclamation obligations attached to Eagle Butte and Belle Ayr, Contura was the winning bidder during Blackjewel’s bankruptcy auction. But the company couldn’t come to an agreement with the federal government over unpaid royalties and another deal was struck with ESM and FM Coal.

In addition to paying the $13.5 million to Campbell County, Contura also agreed to pay Eagle Specialty Materials $90 million to assume the reclamation obligations. ESM also has agreed to guarantee about $100 million worth of reclamation of some of Blackjewel’s smaller defunct operations in Appalachia.

Eagle also will pay Blackjewel $16.2 million in cash; $22 million to Blackjewel’s senior debt holder, Riverstone Credit Parters; pay any unpaid bills and debts incurred during the bankruptcy up to about $4.3 million; and repay 50% of the county production taxes Blackjewel owes.