Sonoma County's plans to permanently reopen and expand its central landfill cleared a major hurdle Thursday, receiving a go-ahead from North Coast water regulators.
The decision approving a permit for up to 22 more years of operation at the Mecham Road site west of Cotati came from the same state agency that nearly a decade ago raised pollution concerns that triggered a five-year closure of the landfill.
"This thing has gone around the mountain a couple of times," said David Noren, chairman of the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board. "This puts us on a (new) footing with moving forward, to let the past be the past."
The decision came over the objections of some neighbors, who voiced concerns about groundwater contamination, noise and traffic.
Design plans and requirements called for under the expansion should protect against such impacts, county consultants and water regulators said.
Susan Klassen, the county's top public works official, hailed the approval as a "huge step" toward full-scale resumption of in-county waste disposal.
The landfill was closed in 2005 over water pollution concerns. It was nearly sold in 2009 to an Arizona waste processor, a hotly disputed move rejected at the last minute in a dramatic split vote by the Board of Supervisors.
It has been open on an interim basis since late 2010 with a limited capacity to accept local garbage.
A separate go-ahead for a full reopening came last year from the state agency overseeing refuse services.
Next up is a series of county and city decisions geared toward extending current private operations of the landfill and county waste transfer stations for up to 30 years.
The proposed arrangement is with Republic Services, the same Arizona firm that was in line to buy the landfill, and the Ratto Group of Companies, the county's dominant waste hauler. It is aimed at offloading up to $65 million in development costs, stabilizing garbage rates, increasing recycling programs and paying off roughly $100 milllion in county and city liabilities for closure and post-closure upkeep of the central landfill and seven former dumps.
The master agreement is set to come to the Board of Supervisors in mid- to late April and is being called one of the biggest business deals in county history, with an estimated lifetime value of $1.2 billion, according to one former county waste official.
Environmental groups and other interests that opposed the landfill sale have largely endorsed the deal. County labor leaders have voiced objections, seeing it as another move to outsource public services.
Final contract documents are due out in a couple of weeks.
Thursday's deliberations by water regulators were mostly about construction, monitoring and reporting requirements to protect surface and ground-water resources.
The permit covers operations over 165 acres. Expansion is planned within about 33 acres.
Neighbors said they did not welcome an enlarged landfill.
"I would just like to see it held up until we see what the outcome is going to be," said Roger Larsen, a resident of the nearby Happy Acres subdivision.
But regulators said studies found no significant unmitigated environmental impacts would result from the landfill. They called the safeguards, including a double drainage and waste liner system that exceeds state standards, "robust."
"We know a lot. We're comfortable with what we know and we're going to learn more," Diana Henrioulle, a senior engineer for the North Coast water agency said of the state's oversight.