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Critics of Arizona company cite past environmental, labor violations; officials defend performance


At the Oct. 9 meeting of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors last year, representatives of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 wheeled in a stack of boxes filled with court documents and news reports about Republic Services, the giant solid waste contractor.

Each supervisor got a box.

The paperwork detailed multi-million dollar fines and jury verdicts on chronic environmental problems for Republic landfills in Ohio and South Carolina; a $3 million settlement following a 2007 federal raid that detained more than 50 undocumented immigrant workers at a Houston-area subsidiary; and a $725,000 fine from the state of California on a long-closed Richmond landfill, purchased by Republic, that regulators said threatened to leak contaminants into San Francisco Bay.

Union members say the reports validate their case that the $8 billion Arizona-based company should not be trusted to run Sonoma County's central landfill west of Cotati for the next 20 years.

"Republic Services is a behemoth. And everywhere they work, the environment suffers," said Lathe Gill, area director for SEIU Local 1021. He voiced similar reservations about labor relations at the company.

"I would definitely disagree with that" assessment, Rick Downey, Republic's local operations manager, said last week.

"We operate over 200 landfills, 240 transfer stations, about 300 hauling companies. You are going to have some issues," he said. "The thing you have to realize is that Republic has the wherewithal to fix those when an issue does come up. I think that's hugely important."

He added that Republic is an "open shop," employing both union and non-union workers.

A strike last week by Republic workers in Ohio sparked sympathy protests by workers in a Bay Area Republic subsidiary. The picket lines disrupted garbage service in six cities from Half Moon Bay to Daly City.

Downey, the local Republic manager, said he was not aware of any Republic labor problems or investigations affecting Sonoma County.

County officials said they were aware of many of the company's environmental cases. Supervisor Shirlee Zane, a board leader on solid waste issues, described them as "isolated incidents."

"If it gave me significant pause, I don't think we'd be here," she said.

Closer to home, there also have been recent problems with Republic's interim operation of the county landfill.

In December, after a series of heavy rainstorms, a whistleblower documented problems with water runoff at the central landfill. The issues spurred a formal notice of violation from North Coast water regulators just before they were set to consider a long-term permit for the site.

The regulators' report documented inadequate winter preparation of active landfill surfaces and roads as well as uncontrolled seepage, uncovered waste and erosion problems. Republic also failed to properly report the issues, a misstep that regulators noted carries the potential for civil liability.

County officials said Republic scrambled to fix the issues to the satisfaction of regulators. Last month, they approved a permit that allows the landfill to expand by 33 acres within its current boundary and operate for up to 22 more years.

"I don't think you could say the county wouldn't have experienced the same problems at the same time," said Susan Klassen, the county's transportation and public works director. "Nobody is perfect. I defy you to find a landfill that is."