Small haulers must bow out of construction cleanup jobs

Joe Ventenbergs has been doing business the same way for 12 years. He gets hired by a construction contractor, drops a heavy container at the site, and hauls it off to a transfer station when it's brimming with Sheetrock and other debris.

But Ventenbergs got a letter from the city last week saying that much of the work he does is now illegal.

A tweak to the Seattle Municipal Code froze out small haulers like Ventenbergs, who is no longer allowed to remove nonrecyclable construction waste. Heavyweights Waste Management and Rabanco have an exclusive contract with the city and will be the only companies allowed to do the hauling under the changed law.

For consumers, that may mean higher costs on construction projects as competition thins and contractors are forced to pay more for waste removal.

Ventenbergs said he hauls away a large container for about $200; Rabanco said it charges about $500. Contractors say they're likely to pass on those costs as they cope with the higher price themselves.

The actual change didn't amount to much more than a few words. Council members voted last fall to count debris from construction, demolition and land-clearing as "city waste," which falls to Waste Management and Rabanco to remove. Some small haulers found out about the change at a December meeting, but others, like Ventenbergs, didn't find out until receiving warning letters from the city.

Small haulers say the loss of business hits hard.

"They're saying I'm not allowed to haul," said Ventenbergs, owner of Kendall Trucking. "That's the majority of my business."

Hans Van Dusen, solid waste contract manager at Seattle Public Utilities, said the new code simply closes an unintended loophole. Waste Management and Rabanco have had contracts with the city giving them exclusive rights to haul nonrecyclable waste, but city code didn't include the exclusive-rights clause, technically allowing anyone to haul the debris.

"It was done just to be consistent with the contracts and consistent with the exclusive arrangement that had been in place all along," Van Dusen said.

The city won't gain any financial benefits from the change, Van Dusen said.

All haulers, including Waste Management and Rabanco, are still allowed to truck away recyclable construction waste such as wood and sheet metal if it's at least 90 percent recyclable. Construction contractors can haul debris themselves. Rubbish removers, who do not use containers and loosely fit the requirements for self-hauling, would not be affected by the change.

Targeting the work of small debris haulers smacks of favoritism, some in the industry say, because haulers compete with the city contractors.

"Sounds to me like it's a monopoly for Rabanco," said Ron Haider, owner of Haider Construction. "It's against the sprit of free commerce."

Under the new rules, Haider will have to pay the more-expensive city contractors for waste removal or do the job himself — options he's not thrilled about. Both scenarios likely will raise prices for consumers, he said, because he'll end up spending more money either way.

"It harms everybody," Haider said. "I'll have to alter my business practices severely, which is upsetting to me."

Haider said he's been working with Ventenbergs since higher prices and slow service caused him to quit using Rabanco.

The price for hauling away full containers varies, but Ventenbergs and a Rabanco representative agreed that prices at smaller operations are cheaper because they have less overhead.

Small haulers are quicker, too, Haider said. Ventenbergs offers same-day hauling service, while Haider said he can wait up to two weeks for Rabanco.

Bruce Bentley, municipal marketing director for Rabanco, said there is seldom a wait for the company's services and that he doesn't anticipate a glut of business from the code change because most contractors used Rabanco.

The ordinance was unanimously passed by the City Council in October, and the utility company held a public meeting in December to clarify the rules and answer questions. About 20 people attended, Seattle Public Utilities workers said. Smaller businesses just slipped under the radar, the utility said.

"This might be news to some of them," Van Dusen said. "We tried, but I'm sure we missed some. We tried to use all our resources to get the right people there."

The city is working on an education effort to let contractors and haulers know the new rule. For now, that means sending letters to offenders and starting a monitoring system at the transfer stations. It could also mean penalties, although utility officials say that's unlikely.

"It doesn't sounds like it's probably going to get that far," said Liz Kain, the utility specialist charged with enforcement.

Ventenbergs got his letter after Kain noticed his container at a construction site. It was a shock to get the news, he said, and he's still figuring out his next move. It might mean stepping up his recycling business or hauling material he picks up outside Seattle.

"I guess I'm just going to have to follow the rules, right?" he said. "But it's going to take a big part of my business away."

Lisa Heyamoto: 206-464-2149 or