Sept. 15, 2010

Hank Van Laarhoven and Virginia Valiela

The Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District received the National
SWANA Gold Excellence Award for Landfill Management at the Wastecon conference Aug. 15 in Boston. Hank Van Laarhoven and Virginia Valiela, the district’s directors, recently sat down with Faye LaRochelle of Brown and Caldwell to discuss their careers in the solid waste industry.

Name: Virginia Valiela

Title: Executive Director, Greater New Bedford (Mass.) Regional Refuse Management District

Background: Virginia received her bachelor's and master's degrees at Cornell University. In her current role, Virginia is responsible for overall management including budgets, investments, revenues and expenditures, audit, personnel program development in recycling and public education, data collection and reporting to regulatory agencies, and grant writing. She was a Selectman and Commissioner of Public Works in Falmouth, Mass., for more than 20 years.

Name: Hank Van Laarhoven

Title: Director of Operations, Chief Procurement Officer, Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District

Background: Hank received his bachelor's degree at Bridgewater State College and earned a post graduate certification in advanced facility management at Northeastern University. He is Massachusetts certified in Public Procurement. With more than 40 years in the solid waste industry, Hank is responsible for all aspects of operations and management of the solid waste facility, including the supervision of more than 80 employees. As the Massachusetts Chapter Vice President of the Solid Waste Association of North America, Hank is involved in local and state organizations to push for the betterment of the community and environment.

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How did you get started in the solid waste field?
Virginia Valiela: I started the recycling program in my hometown on the first Earth Day, and I have been involved in recycling and then solid waste, both in the private and public sectors, ever since.
Hank Van Laarhoven: I started when I was 4 years old standing on my father’s truck going from dump to dump recycling, pulling steel out of the landfill, and I did this up through high school. I wound up getting back into it after college. There was a waste to energy situation that I thought was the future, where they took solid waste and turned it into a fuel. We sold the fuel across New England. From there I went on to manage landfills and other waste to energy plants, and also compost and recycling facilities for various companies.

What advice would you give to someone starting out in this industry?
Valiela: Network. Join the Solid Waste Association of North America and your local recycling committee. Find out where your trash goes. Learn about solid waste. Most people think it’s something that should just go away, when in fact it’s an important aspect of every municipality.
Van Laarhoven: Volunteering is very important. If you choose to go into this field, pick up some jobs or internships as you work your way through college. If you can’t pick up jobs, then volunteer and do work in the field that will advance your career.

What accomplishments are you most proud of in your career?
Valiela: Without a doubt it has been my work at the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District and the teamwork that has made this municipal landfill a technological and financial success. It is so unusual to have the public sector do something so environmentally good at a really economical price.
Van Laarhoven: Virginia said it all. When I worked for the private sector, we thought that the District would never make it, but the teamwork that has evolved and the team of people that have come together have worked phenomenally.

What do these national excellence awards, first the bronze and now the gold, mean to you?
Valiela: Excellence in landfill management means we have taken a job that occurs in communities in every state, and we have done it so well that our peers have recognized that this is in fact an outstanding operation.

What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
Valiela: I enjoy gardening, growing things. And that is one of the reasons I am so proud of all the land purchases the District has made. It made so much sense to preserve the neighborhood in which the landfill is located. In the process we were able to support the nearby forestry, cranberry and farming industries.
Van Laarhoven: Both of us consider ourselves farmers. I have cattle, horses, chickens and a vegetable garden at home, and that’s my love. It was so nice we could bring some of that into what we do. And I also love Celtic music.

What is the best benefit of the work you do together?
Valiela: I think we set an example of management sharing skills. Sharing the skills together makes us both stronger. We are good examples for other

organizations and the people we work with.
Van Laarhoven: We complement each other.

What’s something people might be surprised to know about the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District?
Van Laarhoven: That it is a District, because people don’t understand the concept of a district as distinct from the city. The original chairman of the Board of Directors, David Vincent, said that what’s good for the District is good for the town and city, but he also said that what’s good for the town and city isn’t necessarily good for the District. Realizing that concept is probably the toughest thing for people to understand.
Valiela: The other thing people don’t understand about the District is the importance of our financial reserves. We take a long view. That helps carry us through the low spots, and it also allows us to provide this service economically into the future. By having the landfill gas extraction we have created a revenue source that outlives the life of the landfill. That is something very unusual in the municipal experience.
Van Laarhoven: The land purchase is so necessary for the success and survival of the facility. I recommend that to any facility. You need to purchase the land around you. People think that’s spending too much or going out of line, but you need to own the land around you to provide a buffer. The best form of control is ownership for the District's sake and the neighbor's sake.

What’s the one thing you can’t live without at work?
Van Laarhoven: Good personnel and decent equipment.
Valiela: You also need good leadership. We have a board that makes policies, and then we carry them out. If you had a board that said “We know how to run a landfill better than you do,” I think there would be problems. I can’t live without a good board.

What’s the worst job you ever had?
Van Laarhoven: I’ve worked on the conveyors at waste to energy plants. As a manager I always worked with the men, so I would end up under the conveyors with rats right next to me. But if I didn’t do it then I couldn’t expect the guys to do it. I didn’t really consider it that bad because I came out of the Marines, where I slept with rats at times. I guess most people would consider that a bad job, but that’s life.
Valiela: I have a very strong work ethic, so if it’s a job that has to be done I just go and do it. If it’s too big of a job then I figure a way to cut it into pieces so that it’s manageable. We don’t complain about our jobs.

What's on your to-do list?
Valiela: I would like to find a use for the carbon dioxide that is coming out of the waste to energy plants. I would like to get solar power from the slopes of the capped landfill. Those are the big ideas down the road.
Van Laarhoven: We need to pick some people to carry the ball for us.
Valiela: Yes, we're getting a lot of gray hair.
Van Laarhoven: Or no hair. I'd take the gray!

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Visit the Greater New Bedford Regional Refuse Management District's website to learn more.