On a 3-2 vote, the Montana Public Service Commission approved a request from L&L Site Services to begin hauling garbage in Missoula, reversing a decision it made earlier this year.

Approval of the Belgrade-based carrier will bring new competition to the Missoula market, which had been served exclusively by Republic Services.

Lance Johnson, owner and founder of L&L Site Services, said he plans to begin service next month, once the company receives its final permit from the PSC.

“I have to get the actual permit back to see if they restricted me on anything, but I'm guessing within a week or so I'll have an answer on everything,” Johnson said Thursday. “I'll be in Missoula next week and the following week to move things forward. We've already started over here, as far as equipment and everything else.”

L&L Site Services initially applied to operate in Missoula County in March, though Republic Services protested the application. After a public hearing, the PSC denied L&L's application in August, leaving Republic as the county's only trash hauler.

But L&L asked the PSC to reconsider its decision in September. The commission did so and voted this week to grant the hauler a certificate to begin operating in Missoula.

“The law we're required to enforce puts a very heavy burden on any new company wanting to enter a monopolized trash hauler market,” said Commissioner Roger Koopman, a Republican who represents the Bozeman district where L&L currently conducts business. “The commission’s reversal of its earlier ruling is great news for all Missoula consumers who value their right to choose."

But Glenda Bradshaw, general manager for Republic Services in Montana, said Koopman's change of mind and pro L&L stance was “notable” and smacked of local favoritism.

“Not only did the commission's written ruling demonstrate that L&L didn't represent a need, they really had an incomplete case,” Bradshaw said. “There was no clear sense of what they were going to contribute to our community. It's frustrating that a commissioner from Bozeman lent his full support and has previously been on record as an L&L supporter. It's very troubling.”

Commissioner Bob Lake, R-Hamilton, whose district includes Missoula County, agreed that L&L submitted an incomplete application. He voted against granting the company's operating permit.

"We were presented evidence in a hearing that was not complete,” he said. “The applicant has the burden of putting together a case that will prove the need and their ability to improve the service. Without enough evidence, without trying to advocate, they need to put together a case that proves they're going to bring something better to the community."

Johnson expects a permit within the coming weeks.

“We're seeing a need over there for competition and another service,” Johnson said. “Everyone wants another option. It's just the American way. Once we get the permit, we'll put the business plan on the ground and begin working out routing.”

L&L Services was founded in 2006 and currently serves Gallatin, Jefferson and Madison counties. It also holds the hauling contract for Yellowstone National Park.

Johnson said he purchased the trucks months ago and is ready to begin service. He will also be meeting with local stakeholders, including the city, to explore recycling options and the city's goals of achieving zero waste by 2050.

“I have to start meeting with all the current recyclers, and I'm meeting with the mayor to see what recycling is working for the city, where they need it to be, and where they're weak on it,” Johnson said. “I'll come into the city with an open mind on what's right, what we can push, what policies we can put out, and start creating new ones to help that waste stream.”

Bradshaw said L&L will likely have an impact on local business, though it's too soon to know what that is. It could impact rural routes and current recycling efforts, among other things common in Missoula, she said.

“We're not sure what that's going to look like,” she said. “The PSC hasn't even issued a written ruling to the parties. We're disappointed they changed their conclusion from the previous ruling. We hope to understand that change in their decision-making process.”