Sonoma County delays landfill deal

Sonoma County today is set to extend interim deals with its two main solid waste contractors, a move meant to buy more time to hammer out a side agreement with cities that has stalled the long-term reopening of the county's central landfill.

Operation of the Mecham Road site west of Cotati was to be permanently privatized this summer under a 20-year deal worth an estimated $547 million. But execution of the agreement with Arizona-based Republic Services has been delayed by ongoing county-city negotiations over potential future liabilities associated with the landfill.

A lawsuit, meanwhile, by a group of neighbors and the county's largest labor union has sought to overturn the county decision that approved the outsourcing deal.

The county-city talks have bogged down on the issue of how to settle an estimated $50 million in closure and post-closure costs for the 42-year-old dump should Republic Services go out of business and fail to cover those future claims.

Cities have long wanted to erase that liability and their preferred approach is to have the county assume it should Republic fail. They would pay for that release through garbage rates over the next 20 years.

The key question at the bargaining table remains how much to charge at the landfill gate to cover the liability.

"What is reasonable to collect and set aside for that potential risk," said Susan Klassen, the county's transportation and public works director.

The negotiations between the county and its nine cities are the latest chapter for the embattled central landfill, which was reopened on a interim basis in late 2010 after a five-year closure triggered by water pollution concerns.

The liability charges would have the most direct effect on what commercial and self-haulers pay at the landfill. Landfill rates are a lesser factor in the bills for curbside customers.

The delayed settlement has postponed construction to open new areas for waste in the landfill — room that's needed if the county is to avoid hauling most to all of its garbage out of the area in the short term.

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