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Shutdown of Sonoma County's compost facility averted


A shutdown of the composting facility at Sonoma County’s central landfill was averted Wednesday when the public agency in charge of the program voted to continue trying to find a way to solve the water pollution problems plaguing the site.

The alternative facing the 10-member board of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency was to begin winding down operations before the rainy season and start hauling to other counties the 100,000 tons of yard waste and food scraps collected from residents’ bins every year.

“Do we want to just stop and say, ‘No — no more compost at this point and 100 percent out-haul’?” asked Healdsburg Mayor Jim Wood, the board chairman. “Or do we want to continue working on a plan?”

He said efforts by the agency’s staff and others to find a solution had been “extraordinary” and he felt the work should be allowed to go on. State water quality regulators have tentatively endorsed a plan aimed at minimizing wastewater in the short term while efforts to find a new site for the operation move forward.

But critics warned that pollution was likely to continue at the site even with new measures. The risk of significant fines also remains, they said.

Roger Larsen, a resident of the nearby Happy Acres subdivision, said that instead of acting like “a lion” to protect the environment, regulators were acting “more like a kitten.”

“But I’ll remind you that even that kitten has claws,” Larsen told the board. “If you continue to dump water into Stemple Creek, there’s still liability and they can still fine you.”

The agency’s composting efforts have come under intense scrutiny from state regulators and neighbors — led by Larsen — who have threatened a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit over the millions of gallons of wastewater that runs out of the massive open-air compost piles and into nearby Stemple Creek annually.

For several months, it has been unclear whether the agency could find a way to avoid potentially huge fines in the event that a wet winter triggers large discharges into the creek.

A shutdown looked more likely earlier this year after agency staff realized it couldn’t build its proposed 29-million-gallon holding pond by the fall, partly because of the presence of the endangered tiger salamander. That project, including environmental study and construction, now is expected to take at least two years.

Last month, the agency submitted a plan to the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board that outlined several measures aimed at reducing the short-term runoff risk and speeding up the search for a new home for the operation.

For the past 20 years, contractor Sonoma Compost has operated on a temporary site atop the county’s central landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati. The agency has been studying new locations for years and has narrowed the list down to two sites, a new one beside the landfill and another east of Petaluma.

The agency proposed to regulators a dual-track process with a variety of short-term projects meant to limit runoff while also working toward a long-term decision on a new location and facility, estimated to cost between $10 million and $15 million. That decision is expected in November.

The short-term measures include reducing the acreage of the composting area by 18 percent to reduce runoff; combining two small ponds into one larger pond; pumping the wastewater out of that pond more regularly and trucking it away for disposal; and adding more sediment traps and covering the finished piles to reduce infiltration of rainwater.

As a backstop, the agency also inked a new contract with the Ratto Group, the local garbage hauler, that effectively puts the company on standby to take some or all of the yard waste out of the county if necessary.

These and other measures seemed to convince the water board to soften its position on penalties.

While the water board retained the right to fine the agency for future releases of pollution, Executive Officer Matt St. John noted in a letter that the waste agency’s “continued and diligent efforts” to find short- and long-term solutions “will factor significantly in our decisions with respect to the nature of any enforcement response we might consider or recommend to the Board.”

While the flexibility suggested by such language reassured some, others pressed for a closer analysis of the risks that remain.

Rick Downey, division manager for Republic Services, the solid waste contractor that manages the landfill, said executives in his company are concerned that the compost operation could violate the landfill’s discharge permit. That permit is now in the county’s name but will soon be in Republic’s once it completes a long-planned takeover of landfill operations.

“We cannot afford to have violations. That really hurts our company, especially for something that’s totally out of our control,” Downey said.

When the agency’s attorney suggested the conversation about liability was not appropriate to have in public, Supervisor Shirlee Zane urged the issue be aired.

“It’s an absolute fair question given the county’s liability, given the county’s responsibilities and contract with Republic to operate the landfill,” she said.

Further complicating the picture was Petaluma Public Works Director Dan St. John’s announcement that the City Council planned to consider withdrawing its green waste from the agency’s compost program. The city already sends its garbage to the Redwood Landfill north of Novato, and the council has expressed an interest in sending its compost to the Marin County dump as well, St. John said.

If Petaluma does pull out, it actually could help the situation by reducing the footprint of the compost operation at the central landfill, said Henry Mikus, executive director of the county waste management agency.

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