OAKLAND -- The cars line up three days a week at the hazardous waste collection site, dropping off junk that cannot go in the regular trash: batteries, motor oil, paint thinner, rat poison.
But unless every Alameda County homeowner begins paying $9.55 on their tax bills each year to cover the cost of disposal, the countywide Waste Management Authority insists it will have to sharply cut back the hours at its four drop-off sites in Oakland, Hayward, Fremont and Livermore. Much of that corrosive and toxic household junk, the agency warns, could end up dumped in our streets, parks and watershed.
Critics contend the proposed fee -- to be adopted or denied Wednesday -- is unnecessary, and so is the agency trying to collect it.
"There is no logical reason for that organization to exist," said San Leandro resident Laython Landis. Landis thinks he should know; he's on its board of directors.
Landis and the 16 other politicians who govern the Alameda County Waste Management Authority, also known as StopWaste, are scheduled to gather Wednesday afternoon to vote for a second time on whether to adopt the $9.55-per-home fee, after the board's first vote failed to pass in April.
The board is also prepared Wednesday to approve the agency's budget, which has annual expenditures of about $24 million and a staff of 42 expecting a 2.5 percent raise. The new fee would bring in about $5 million yearly to the hazardous waste collection program.
It will take 12 of the board members -- two-thirds approval -- to adopt the fee. The board could muster only 11 votes last month, but two members were absent for the vote. One of them was Landis, an 88-year-old who represents the Oro Loma Sanitary District and said he had to leave the meeting early.
The agency already asked Alameda County property owners what they think, and the response was stunning: more than 50,000 formal protest letters from property owners representing about 100,000 residential units across the county -- about 18 percent of all apartments, condos and houses.
Still, the mass protest did not meet the legal threshold to defeat the fee. A majority of homeowners would have had to apply a stamp and send in a protest letter, or speak out at a meeting.
"The StopWaste folks are very, very determined people and really want this revenue," said Emeryville resident Leslie Straus, who said she is not an activist but became "increasingly appalled" observing the process.
The retired librarian has used the county drop-off sites but also said she can now drop most of her modest amount of household hazardous waste at chain stores. She questioned why the agency needed so much money to expand hours.
"The determination to bypass the spirit of the law, to actually ignore really articulate and intelligent public input, and tens of thousands of people who have indicated they don't want them to do this, it's just abhorrent," she said.
Those who run the waste collection program argue that the proposed fee will be a needed source of funding over the next decade. The waste management authority is losing revenue in part because of the success of recycling: as more residents recycle, less trash is going to landfills and less money is coming in to the agency through landfill fees.
But household hazardous waste is not going away and stores and private recyclers are only taking back some of it.
"I don't know what we'd do" without the proposed new fee, said Bill Pollock, who manages the county's household hazardous waste program. "We would have to basically cut ourselves in half."
The Oakland site would likely shift from weekly to every other week and cut back hours; the Hayward and Livermore sites to once a month. With a fee, however, Pollock said the program could expand to include door-to-door pickup for the elderly, and one-day parking lot events for the neighborhoods farthest from the drop-off sites and least likely to use them.
Pollock has been with the collection program since its inception. He unloaded the very first car to drop off hazardous household junk as part of the countywide program. It was in Hayward, on Sept. 3, 1993.
Speaking as his staff, clad in protective white uniforms, pulled out paint cans, household cleaners and photographic developing fluid from cars lined up at the East Oakland drop-off site, Pollock described the trajectory of each of the items collected.
Usable items go to a local swap shed. Oil-based paint heads to Midwestern cement kilns. Batteries are sorted by chemistry and many end up with Los Angeles recyclers. Fluorescent lights travel to an Arizona plant that crushes them and recovers much of the mercury and phosphorus for reuse.
"We would all like to move away from the government being involved and having private industry take responsibility for the entire life cycle of a product," Pollock said. "Put me out of business."
Hardware stores now take back paint, though only if the cans are in good condition. But the reality, he said, is that his work is still necessary if residents want their most environmentally dangerous household items to be disposed of properly.
"They're only taking the cream of the crop, the easy stuff," Pollock said of the manufacturers. "I'm here to take all the crap that everybody else can't, and we do a pretty good job."