A hard-fought battle over a Clean Water Act lawsuit — costing ratepayers more than $1.1 million — has spelled the end for Sonoma County’s largest compost producer, Sonoma Compost Co.
Under a settlement reached late Thursday night, Sonoma Compost must shut down operations atop the Central Landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati by Oct. 15.
“We’re extremely disappointed and frustrated,” said Alan Seigle, who founded Sonoma Compost with his partner Will Bakx in 1993. “We feel horrible for our employees and the citizens of Sonoma County. This is going to have a huge impact all of our customers — particularly the agricultural community and small-scale farmers.”
The lawsuit, brought by Roger Larsen, a resident of the Happy Acres subdivision near the landfill, alleged Sonoma Compost was polluting the nearby Stemple Creek for years. State water regulators confirmed the composting operation had violated the Clean Water Act, and rainwater catchment ponds on the site overflowed at least twice during the last rainy season, contaminating the creek. Regulators threatened the county with fines of $10,000 a day.
The deal, finalized Friday , means the composting site will be gone by October — in time for the rainy season — alleviating the potential that rainwater will hit compost heaps and pollute the creek below. The agreement settles the lawsuit between Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency and residents who filed suit under a group called Renewed Efforts of Neighbors Against Landfill Expansion, representing about 100 households in the neighborhood.
“I’m very happy the pollution will stop; that’s what the lawsuit was all about,” Larsen said, though he expressed reservations about a potential new composting site.
The settlement requires the Waste Management Agency to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees of $131,000, and an additional $100,000 to the Oakland-based Rose Foundation to restore Stemple Creek and the Bodega Bay watershed. The waste agency, which has racked up at least $500,000 in attorney’s fees since August, also must cover Sonoma County’s legal fees of $375,000.
The deal does not include Sonoma Compost, and the civil suit between Larsen’s group and Sonoma Compost is not resolved, said Michael Lozeau, an attorney who represents neighbors behind the lawsuit.
“They were there at the negotiating table last week, but they weren’t willing to negotiate with us,” Lozeau said.
The agreement allows Sonoma Compost to challenge the deal in an attempt to remain open, but the company’s owners said they did not plan to do so.
Costs for the lawsuit, and the settlement, ultimately are covered by ratepayers through curbside pickup fees and tipping charges paid when dropping off yard waste at the Central Landfill. Those rates already have gone up this year and are expected to rise even more.
Under a 25-year deal finalized April 1 that permanently transfers responsibility for the county’s dump to Arizona-based Republic Services, which runs the 170-acre Central Landfill, fees for dropping off waste at the landfill went up by more than $19, to $54 per ton. Now, so-called tipping fees are slated to go up again to cover the cost of trucking yard waste out of the county, to a proposed $84 per ton.
Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the county’s representative overseeing waste matters, said the deal was not easy to reach.