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Curbside flood debris cleanup begins along the lower Russian River area

Bright sunlight and the noise of heavy trucks and debris-moving machines were welcome Monday along the storm-soaked lower Russian River area, courtesy of Mother Nature and a $2.5 million cleanup authorized by county officials.

Crews from four local refuse hauling companies got busy in the early morning scooping up mounds of sodden waste piled along Highway 116 and on residential streets from Forestville to Cazadero, kicking off a two-week effort to remove the remains from the area’s worst flood since 1995.

Officials scrambled to organize the curbside collection last week after a local health emergency was declared, calling the waste from about 2,600 flooded Russian River homes and 570 businesses “a substantial present or potential hazard to human health and the environment unless immediately addressed and managed.”

“I had everybody’s garbage in here,” said Dennis McBride, a Hacienda area resident who rode out the flood in his elevated home with more than 7 feet of water in his yard.

The retired carpenter’s yard was tidy Monday, but the flood’s brown stain was on his garage wall. On his short block alone there were at least nine piles of muddy refuse, with more to come, McBride said.

“There’s days and days of debris (waiting) under the houses here,” he said.

Elise VanDyne, executive director of the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, said the county-funded cleanup was critical to the community’s health and economy.

“Clean streets, open businesses, sun shining are a big part of rejuvenating the river,” she said.

She said the chamber is getting calls every day from people planning a visit who are asking, “What is it going to be like?”

“We’re certainly grateful to the county for stepping up,” VanDyne said.

Fred Stemmler, general manager for Recology Sonoma Marin, said he had no estimate of the volume of refuse collected Monday from the Hacienda area of Forestville downstream to Monte Rio and Cazadero.

From Hacienda alone, six steel debris boxes were hauled out, each carrying about 3 tons of waste, he said.

The curbside collection program replaced last week’s response that consisted of staffing debris drop-off sites along the river, which had received about 1,140 tons of refuse through Thursday and were ended Saturday.

Curbside collection was expected to pick up another 5,000 tons, the county said.

County supervisors held a special meeting Thursday to authorize curbside collection at a cost of up to $1.5 million, boosting the overall debris response to about $2.5 million.

West County Supervisor Lynda Hopkins, whose district bore the brunt of the flood damage, said it took plenty of bureaucratic wrangling to secure a key part of the program: a state agreement to reimburse the county for 75 percent of the cost.

“I was beating my head against a wall on this one for days,” she said.

It took until Friday to gain an assent from the state Office of Emergency Services, Hopkins said.

State and federal regulations have tightened since the county’s last major flood, she said.

“It used to be simple,” Hopkins said. “You clean it up; you get your reimbursement.”

Behind the health crisis and red tape tangles, there is an unseen harm from so much ruined stuff cluttering the places people call home, she said.

“It’s already an emotionally disturbing process,” Hopkins said, “to see cherished possessions - grandfather clocks, pet beds, record collections - reduced to soggy rubble.”

Recology, which serves the river area, called on three other refuse haulers to help: Sonoma County Resource Recovery, Pacific Sanitation and Industrial Carting. Each of the four companies fielded a crew of eight drivers, loaders and handlers, backed up by independent hazardous waste specialists and county monitors.

On River Drive in the Hacienda area, two yellow skid steer loaders bit into heaps of refuse with huge steel jaws and dumped it into debris boxes.

“We have to go slow and document everything,” Stemmler said at the site.

Everything that goes into a box must be verified as flood debris to comply with state and federal standards, he said.

Hazardous waste workers plucked out items that cannot go to a conventional landfill, he said.

The boxes were trucked to the county’s Guerneville waste transfer station, with the refuse hauled by different trucks from there to the Central Landfill on Mecham Road.

Recyclables are separated from the refuse consigned to the dump.

Traffic on Highway 116 was delayed considerably by reductions to one lane as the cleanup went on, but Dennis McBride wasn’t troubled by the intrusion of waste haulers.

“I am more than happy seeing them here,” he said.

The work will continue on weekdays through March 22.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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