Only a month ago, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors voted in favor of a new agreement that called for Covanta Energy to continue operating the waste-to-energy plant, better known as the Lorton incinerator.

Now, the Fairfax supervisors say the 30-year deal they had negotiated with the private waste management company is off the table. Covanta has backed away from agreed-upon terms and is pushing for greater concessions from the county in the contract, according to the supervisors.

"Covanta has now advised the county that it is no longer willing to implement this agreement and instead now wishes to renegotiate the deal. Fairfax does not do business this way. We had a deal and Covanta broke it. This is unacceptable," said Supervisor John Cook (R-Braddock) in a public statement.

IN A WRITTEN statement, Covanta said it had not backed out of its previous deal with the county.

"Covanta is ready to draft and sign a contract that is consistent with the term sheet previously agreed to. However, at this point we clearly have different ideas on how the term sheet would be converted to an amended service agreement," wrote the company's spokesman James Regan in an e-mail.

Regan added that Covanta hopes to continue its relationship with Fairfax County.

"We would like nothing more than to resolve these issues and resume what has been a long, positive and productive relationship between Fairfax County and Covanta," he wrote.

IN RESPONSE TO Covanta's recent actions, the supervisors unanimously voted on April 26 to explore "all options" for the incinerator, including those that do not include Covanta as a partner.

"Clearly, the board is going back to the drawing board," said Supervisor Gerry Hyland (D-Mount Vernon), who represents the area around the incinerator in Lorton.

Hyland said the Fairfax government might reconsider purchasing the Lorton plant from Covanta in light of the private company's recent behavior.

As of late March, the supervisors appeared to have closed the door on the purchasing the plant when they voted 8-2 to pursue a new contract with Covanta instead.

"We thought all we had to do was ink the deal," said Fairfax County Chairman Sharon Bulova (D-At-large), of the agreement with Covanta.

But in a closed session meeting with staff on April 27, several supervisors said they were astonished to discover that Covanta had recently tried to change the terms of the agreement, which means all options should be back on the table.
"In all my years on the board, I can't remember being as displeased with any other subject. There has been nothing more frustrating than trying to negotiate with Covanta," said Hyland, who became a supervisor in 1988.

FAIRFAX COUNTY has not released a detailed list of the Covanta's demands, though Hyland said the waste management company is asking for more money and more flexibility.

According to the Mount Vernon supervisor, Covanta wants a larger share of the revenue earned from the incinerator's energy production.

Covanta has also asked for the option to build its own solid waste transfer station, a facility where small trash haulers take waste so that it can be sorted and loaded onto much larger trucks bound for an incinerator, landfill or recycling plants.

The county government currently operates the only waste transfer station in Fairfax, which allows it to ensure that the vast majority of local trash ends up at the incinerator.

All trash haulers operating in Fairfax are essentially required to bring the waste they collect to the county transfer station. The county then directs that the trash at the transfer station goes to the incinerator.

This is particularly important because Fairfax has an obligation to deliver a certain amount of trash to the incinerator. If the county falls beneath its quota of tons of trash, then it has to start paying Covanta a fine.

A Covanta-operated transfer-station would inevitably compete with the county-run transfer station and make it more difficult for the county to provide the required-amount of trash to Covanta each day, said supervisors.

"If we don't have flow control, there is no way we can guarantee how much trash we can send to them," said Supervisor Linda Smyth (D-Providence).

Hyland added that a new transfer station on the grounds of the incinerator would also bring many more trucks to local roads in Lorton.

THE FAIRFAX SUPERVISORS enter this stand off with Covanta in weaker position than they were a month ago.

In order to get an extension on negotiations, the county board agreed to allow Covanta to operate the incinerator until 2020, even if the county voted to purchase the facility. That move makes any proposal for the county to buy the plant more financially risky, said Smyth.

"Even if we bought it, they would be there for another 10 years," she said.