Over 27 years in the waste sector, Mike Fernandez went from working in the private sector at Browning-Ferris Industries (since absorbed by Republic Services) to the Miami-Dade County Solid Waste Department in Florida. He rose through the ranks over the course of his 15-year tenure at the department. Upon becoming its director in 2019, he shepherded it through a pandemic, high-inflation environment and a fire in February that brought down a waste-to-energy facility in Doral.
On July 3, Fernandez submitted his resignation letter to Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava, warning about a looming waste disposal crisis and outlining an action plan to get the county back on track. Now, he said he’s open to providing his expertise to the private sector.
Fernandez spoke with Waste Dive last week about lessons learned from his experience keeping a waste department that handles nearly 2 million tons of waste yearly across 150 collection routes, 100 bulky trucks and a network of transfer stations operating smoothly.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
WASTE DIVE: During your time at the solid waste department, you assisted with cleanup efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. Obviously, extreme weather is a growing concern, especially with new storms threatening Florida. What practices did you employ in response to Hurricane Irma that you think should be replicated in response to future disasters?
MIKE FERNANDEZ: Preparation is key for anything: storms, emergencies, anything. I was always a firm believer in preparation and communication. You want to make sure your folks are trained, your folks are prepared, the department is prepared. You want to have as many temporary disaster debris sites available as possible. The more disaster debris sites that are available — these are temporary sites where you take the hurricane debris — the faster you could get that debris off the road.
Preparation also includes contracts — making sure your contracts are in place, you have valid contracts for hiring additional capacities in the sense of manpower, contractors to help you collect this stuff and the final location where you're going to take this debris. You want to contract some place for all of that, because the last thing you want is to be scrambling in the middle of a storm, trying to figure all that out. You want to have a hurricane plan in place that notes all this. Make sure it's all written out, because institutional knowledge may not be there.
During Hurricane Irma, I was in charge of overseeing the actual hurricane debris collection. At that time, I was the assistant director for disposal. We had at any given point over 1,000 trucks on the road, we picked up over 140,000 cubic yards [of debris] just in one day. In totality, we picked up more than 4.4 million cubic yards of debris within 90 days. Honestly, you have to have a good team to make that happen, and at that time I had a great team and we got the job done.
What’s your sense of other jurisdictions’ planning compared with Miami-Dade? Should other folks start doing things that they currently aren’t, especially considering they may face the kind of flooding or storms that they haven’t in years past?
One of the things they need to really focus on is mimicking what Miami-Dade County would do with their contracts and the preparation level. A lot of this is dependent on reimbursements from the federal government, like FEMA. If you don't have your documents in a row and it's all recorded incorrectly, you're gonna get denied your reimbursement amounts. That means it comes out of your operating budget or your general fund budget. That's what happened during Irma with a lot of the other jurisdictions: They basically ate the bill because they didn't have contracts in place and they weren't prepared.
We actually did really well: We got about a 95% reimbursement level. Our costs back then, if I remember correctly, it was close to $158 million for Hurricane Irma just for our debris management programs. We got 95% of that back because of great documentation, a great team and having the right preparation plan in place and executing it.
I want to turn to some of the things going on in Miami-Dade County right now. In your resignation letter, you mentioned you were able to raise fees three times during your tenure. Today, there is another potential fee increase that's become contentious in the county. I'm curious, number one, why you think that is? But also, what do you think leaders should do to avoid friction with the fee-raising process?
The cost of operation is going up. We're facing the highest inflation in many years. The cost of a truck has gone up, the costs of materials have gone up, the cost of fuel has gone up.
In addition to that, COVID was an impact, right? Tonnage went up. People were working from home. We predominantly don't pick up commercial establishments, but a lot of that tonnage shifted over to the residential units, because people are now working from home — getting takeout food, more delivery service, everything — so you're generating more waste. There is a cost to dispose of that waste. That really hit the department pretty hard.
To reduce the friction on that, I think you have to be transparent with the Board of County Commissioners. Explain the situation of what's going on and show them how a fee schedule is going to resolve this moving forward, not that you're just going to keep coming back for bites at the apple. Show them the thought process.
They may also take creative financial mechanisms to get out of this jam, such as: Is there still COVID money remaining in the county that can still be used to help subsidize some of these expenses? There may be ways of taking loans.
Before I left, we were working on taking over [waste contracts for] all the county facilities. That money could be internalized and fed into the department where you can help offset future fee increases. I think that that could be the winning token right there, if they can get that done. Before I left that was in the pipeline to do. In fact, the department was supposed to have that done in the next three to four years.
Right now, the department does maybe a third of that, and the rest is just outsourced to private companies. I think if they can internalize that and in-source it basically, [and] those other departments pay the solid waste department to handle it. It's no different than if you have an IT department — you're not going to go to Best Buy to get your computer fixed, you're going to have your IT people fix it. Do the same thing with the waste services — let the solid waste department handle all the county facilities and in-source that money and it helps subsidize that residential fee.
The other thing in your letter that drew a lot of attention was that you said the county may need to place a moratorium on development if it doesn't identify new destinations for waste soon. Do you still think that's a likely outcome? Or do you feel that the mayor and the county commission are taking appropriate steps forward to avoid that outcome?
Right now, I haven't seen any action other than this memo that came out. I think the actions that need to be taken are looking at a partial reopening of the [waste-to-energy plant]. It'll take 12 to 15 months to get that plant reopened to accommodate 400,000 tons, roughly, of waste. The first point of action is do that, try to get that going, where then you could get 400,000 tons off your landfills. That means you can extend your landfills a little further.
Secondly, I think you need to go back to some of these private haulers and renegotiate some of these contracts where you could get additional capacity at some of these landfills. Then, have a plan on expanding the landfills too. Lastly, have a plan to execute a contract for a new waste-to-energy facility.
I think they can get out of this whole moratorium situation. The only thing with the [private] contracts is these are landfills that are 130 miles away. You just want to make sure that that's a backup plan. If you don't get your landfill expansions done and you don't reopen a plant, and you're going to depend on a waste-to-energy facility to be open 10 years from now, I think you're gonna run into a problem. The last thing you want is to depend on distant landfills to be exporting your waste.
I was always a person that liked to diversify. That's what I think I learned through my career is you want to diversify your disposal outlets. You should have landfills as part of that component, you should have a waste-to-energy facility as part of that component, you should have recycling as part of that component, you should have other landfills with extra contracted capacity. But you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket.
It's interesting to hear you say that they should reopen that waste-to-energy facility, because I know that the mayor's memo sided with a third-party review of the Doral facility. That report said it might be expensive and, as a result, difficult to justify reopening the facility. But it sounds like you feel differently.
So the report said it's expensive compared to running another facility. Of course it's going to be more expensive, because you're not running at full capacity. If you run more capacity, you can spread that cost over more tons, right? You're restricted to a certain amount of tons. So if you were able to run a million tons, you can spread the fixed costs, as well as the operating cost, across more tonnage.
Aside from that, this is the way I think about it: You're going to pay so much now — it might be more than what the norm is. However, how much are you going to pay in the future when you run out of landfill capacity? What's that cost going to be when you have to export everything out because you're out of capacity?
You're paying a little bit more than a regular facility for more time, basically. You're buying time. I don't think it's the final answer, but I think you need that bridge. Because if not, what are you going to do with 400,000 tons? What does that do to your landfill capacity? How much more time do you buy on your landfills from doing that? I think somebody needs to do the analysis on that.
Earlier this year, EarthJustice released a report about the Doral incineration facility that noted four previous fires there, plus a warning from the Florida Department of Environmental Protection about potential fire safety hazards. Do you think the county could have done more to ensure the facility’s safety and maybe even avoid the catastrophic fire that brought it down in February?
The fire was an accident. The report from the fire department said it was accidental.
I want to remind everybody that during the contract renegotiation we had just signed in October, we had slated over $170 million to put into that plant to get us through the next 10 years. Part of that was to improve structures, to improve the fire systems, to improve a lot of things.
Where the fire started, which was that conveyor belt, fires happen all the time. Conveyers have fires all the time. It happens anywhere, it even happens at recycling facilities. The fire report shows that there was no misconduct, there wasn't any avoided preventive maintenance or anything like that. It was just the result of an accidental mechanical fire that happened.
But I will say this: A newer plant wouldn't have this type of fire. A new plant, which will be a mass burn technology, would not require the abundance of conveyors that that plant had. That plant was modified into a waste-to-energy facility back in the '80s. It had miles of conveyers to run the garbage from the front to the pits to the boilers to the back. It was like a city of conveyors. A brand new mass burn facility does not require that and has a significantly lower chance of fires in the back part of the plant.
Is there anything you'd like to say about the reason you decided to leave when you did?
I think it was time. It's been a few years working on all these things: the landfill expansion, building a new waste-to-energy facility and other priorities that we had. I felt that my team, unfortunately, our recommendations weren't being pursued. If we're the professionals that do this for a living, it gets to a point that if we're giving you all these warning signs and providing you with these recommendations, we need to move forward with them. I think it was time for me to just move on for that reason.