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Neighbors of Sonoma County's Central Landfill are threatening to file a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit over the pollution they say has been running off compost piles and fouling surrounding waterways for years.

Residents of nearby Happy Acres subdivision say they'll sue by mid-August unless they can reach a settlement with the county over the wastewater they say is generated by the 35-acre compost operation located at the northern end of the landfill.

"Who would want to live next to a compost facility that's spewing pollution into the adjacent creek?" said Attorney Michael Lozeau, who represents the group Renewed Efforts of Neighbors Against Landfill Expansion, or RENALE.

The group has already sued to block the installation of a recycling facility at the landfill. That lawsuit was recently settled out of court.

Now the group is targeting the 100,000 tons of soil and compost that Sonoma Compost processes annually from yard waste and food scraps collected from businesses and residences across the county.

The composting operation is well-regarded for its success in diverting organic material from the landfill and turning it into a useful, locally produced product. But the site's environmental shortcomings have also been well documented.

During significant rainstorms, the wastewater from the large compost piles overwhelms two small storage ponds on site. The tainted water then mingles with regular stormwater from other parts of the Mecham Road landfill and can be discharged into waterways leading to Stemple Creek.

The North Coast Water Quality Control Board has already ordered the county, which operates the landfill and is responsible for water pollution from it, to fix the problem or face fines.

The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which oversees the compost operation on landfill space leased from the county, has proposed the construction of a 30-million-gallon storage pond to capture the compost wastewater.

But environmental challenges, namely the proposed pond's location in breeding habitat for the endangered tiger salamander, mean the work can't be completed before upcoming rainy season. Waste management officials are seeking flexibility from regulators that will limit the risk of big discharge fines while the pond is under construction. Absent such flexibility, officials have said shutting down the operation and hauling local green waste out of the county is a real possibility.

Henry Mikus, executive director of the waste agency that is made up of the county and its nine cities, said he could not comment on the neighbors' letter until he met with the agency's attorney, Janet Coleson, who did not return a call for comment.

In their notice to the county, the neighbors cite 180 separate rain events since 2009 that resulted in at least 0.10 inch of rainfall in the area. The 2009 date was selected because there is a 5-year statute of limitations on such lawsuits. Each violation carries a maximum penalty of $37,500, for a total possible penalty of $6.75 million.

Lozeau said the maximum penalties are rarely granted in such cases. A more likely scenario is a settlement that results in additional compliance measures, funds paid to a third party for habitat restoration projects, and the payment of attorney's costs and fees.

The threat of a federal suit and additional penalties over the discharges is likely to increase pressure on the county and waste agency to find a viable solution.

The history of violations further strengthens neighbors' argument that the compost operation needs to be moved to a new location, Lozeau said. A new site would allow the latest pollution control technologies to be installed "right from the get-go rather than trying to backfill them in," he said.

Lozeau questioned whether the pond is really a viable solution, given its size and location beside the landfill.

(You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @citybeater.)