Waste Connections subsidiary County Waste is engaged in a contentious legal fight against Twin Bridges Waste & Recycling over alleged competitive interference in New York's Capital Region, including an escalating series of acquisitions and aggressive pricing tactics from both sides.
The major industry company has a significant foothold in the area, including multiple key disposal assets, following its 2016 reverse merger with Progressive Waste Solutions. Many residential customers in the region have service on a household subscription model, creating potential opportunities for more frequent and active market competition, and pricing battles are nothing new in the waste and recycling industry. Yet industry observers view this one as particularly personal, in part because the owner of Twin Bridges used to own County Waste.
The feud escalated when County alleged numerous counts of "unfair competition," interference and other actions by Twin Bridges in a November lawsuit. Twin Bridges responded with a third-party complaint in December, also targeting Waste Connections, alleging "anticompetitive conduct" and "predatory pricing" in the market. Both parties are seeking injunctive relief and damages.
Twin Bridges' owner Scott Earl sold County to Waste Connections in 2011, after building it up as a significant regional player for more than 20 years. In 2014, per court documents, he was sued by Waste Connections over expensive undisclosed liabilities in a workers' compensation trust and the parties ultimately settled out of court. While the complaint alleges this is a motivation for his actions, corresponding filings from Twin Bridges don't engage on that topic.
Over the years, Earl built up a new business under the County Waste name in Virginia and Pennsylvania (separate from the original New York entity) which was acquired by GFL Environmental in late 2019. Earl later began operating as a freelance "corporate specialist" for GFL, a point of contention in legal filings.
He purchased Twin Bridges in mid-2019 for a low price, per the Albany Business Review, and said it has since grown from three trucks to around 85. The company now services an estimated 65,000 customers, many of which Earl said came from County.
Contrary to allegations made in legal filings, Earl said he does not intend to build this latest company up and sell it to GFL or others. According to Earl, "I don't need the money" and Twin Bridges is moving toward an employee stock ownership plan model – with an estimated 28% stake currently.
Earl said he plans to grow and operate the business long-term for his employees and also to provide better service to former County customers in the region, following what he describes as extended mismanagement and underinvestment paired with repeated price increases.
“They’ll buy as much competition as possible, control the pricing, control the bottom line, control the balance sheet, but not really focus on any kind of service," said Earl, speaking about County's current owners, alleging County had already lost 15% to 20% of its market share before he purchased Twin Bridges and was not investing adequately in its fleet until recently.
Waste Connections' regional leadership declined to comment.
A website attributed to County Waste, including links to the legal filings and local news coverage, was launched in mid-February to promote the company's case. It regularly appears as a paid result when searching for names and terms related to the case. The company's opening legal filing alleged "Earl's strategy for Twin Bridges is to expand its market share using whatever means are available, regardless of the lawfulness or propriety" and laid out numerous counts of alleged harm to its business.
The back-and-forth of legal filings from both sides, as well as commentary from regional sources, paint dueling pictures of this situation being of personal interest for the leadership of each company. This is said to have spurred a variety of aggressive pricing tactics as well as acquisitions of local family haulers intended to limit the other's ability to expand. Some of the most recent examples include Waste Connections' purchase of Robert Wright Disposal, reported by Spotlight News in August, and Twin Bridges' acquisition of Pollard Disposal, reported by The Altamont Enterprise in January.
The court filings are full of descriptions about alleged interference with customers, including claims of false statements and, in one case, Twin Bridges leaving containers from former County customers in a grocery store parking lot where they were said to be damaged. Twin Bridges denied this claim in its legal response.
Filings show the competition has played out across business for municipal contracts, commercial accounts, school districts, individual households and other customers in multiple areas around the region.
Per one exhibit, Twin Bridges offered a year of free service to residential subscription customers with negative statements about its rival. Per another, a County Waste memo describes giving away over $2 million in free service to date and telling representatives to "save customers at whatever the cost." That same memo also included messaging about $2 million invested in trucks during 2020, and plans to "win the war" against its rival.
In one of the more recent debates, via a legal filing, Twin Bridges seeks to make the case Waste Connections and its subsidiaries are engaging in unlawful practices including monopoly tactics. The industry giant has responded in court by saying such charges are a federal matter, and its decentralized corporate structure means Waste Connections is not directly responsible for local operations.
Litigation over pricing and competition is not uncommon in the waste industry, and in many cases is settled out of court, though multiple observers (who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive situation) said they don't necessarily expect this to end quietly.
Earl has a reputation among industry sources for his financial standing, due in part to the sales of prior companies, which could potentially help him withstand legal fees. Twin Bridges' filing of a third-party complaint against Waste Connections, which the larger company filed a motion to dismiss in early February, makes the situation additionally complicated.
In the meantime, the local competition continues and, according to Earl, “we ended up picking up business out of it." Regardless of the outcome, the feud has already led to lasting changes in the regional market including the acquisitions as well as new infrastructure.
After Earl said County, under Waste Connections' ownership, told him "there will never be a day that one of my trucks will set foot on their property," he financed his own $20 million single-stream MRF and $8 million transfer station. Disposal volumes are now going to sites including Waste Management's Green Ridge landfill in the state.
Multiple observers view this as a sign of open market competition at work, leading to new infrastructure, and possibly a net benefit for regional customers.
“Waste Connections did a really good job for three or four years after they bought County Waste, and what ended up happening is service levels went down significantly and prices kept going up," said Jerry Cifor, director of New York-based business advisory firm Tangram Partners, who has worked with Earl as a partner in prior County Waste iterations and also competed against him as former chief financial officer at Casella Waste Systems. “You don’t lose as much work as Waste Connections has lost if you’re doing a good job."
The pro-County Waste litigation website takes a different stance, stating "we value safety, integrity and exceptional customer service – reasons we continue to keep the trust and business of so many longtime local customers."
While the potential factors behind customers' decision to change companies are still being litigated, with the parties set for their next appearance in Albany County Supreme Court on Wednesday, it's clear there has been some shift in market share. Per its filings, County alleges the emergence of Twin Bridges has led to many thousands of dollars in lost revenues and unpaid liquidated damages from broken customer contracts.