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Negotiations for new Sonoma County composting site ended over financing issues

Zero Waste Sonoma Organics Waste Collections

Organics Tonnages Collected:

Fiscal Year 2015-16: 84,452

FY 2016-17: 80,834

FY 2017-18: 80,887

FY 2018-19: 86,057

FY 2019-20: 94,418

Food Waste Tonnages Collected:

Fiscal Year 2015-16: 4,000

FY 2016-17: 4,861

FY 2017-18: 4,477

FY 2018-19: 6,450

FY 2019-20: 6,856

A four-year effort to bring green waste recycling back to Sonoma County has collapsed, scuttling hopes of restoring any time soon a high-volume, locally based compost operation to supply farmers, landscapers and backyard gardeners.

The breakdown came late last month after the company chosen to work with the county waste agency withdrew from negotiations after it failed to secure financing.

The company, Renewable Sonoma, and its principal, Will Bakx, terminated negotiations with the county agency and the city of Santa Rosa after 2½ years of trying to shore up plans for a high-tech composting facility that would convert food scraps and yard waste into valuable agricultural products. The project, estimated to cost $52 million, also was to produce biogas to help power treatment equipment on land leased at the city’s Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant on Llano Road.

Bakx, whose proposal ranked first among nine pitches considered by the county in 2018 for siting and construction of a modern compost facility, said he had to pull the plug on negotiations because he couldn’t put together funding after talking with a variety of investors. He said he was not at liberty to disclose details.

“It was a good project that we proposed, and we really looked forward to implementing it, and I’ve been doing this for a long time. So, yes, it is a disappointment,” he said.

Leslie Lukacs, executive director of Zero Waste Sonoma, the local waste management agency representing unincorporated areas and the county’s nine cities, said she has secured sufficient capacity in neighboring counties for all the organic waste Sonoma County residents put in their green bins each week.

But the suspension in talks represents an enormous blow for stakeholders. It means 100,000 tons of organic waste now trucked and processed elsewhere each year will continue to be hauled out of county for the foreseeable future, at extra cost to consumers and the planet.

Diversion of green waste from disposal in traditional landfills, where it produces significant volumes of heat-trapping methane during decomposition, and converting those materials instead to a usable commodity serves both an economic and an environmental benefit.

Hauling Sonoma County’s growing volume of organic waste to outside composting sites adds vehicle emissions and contradicts the mission to reduce greenhouse gases, compost supporters and climate advocates note.

It also makes it more difficult for local customers to acquire large volumes of quality compost and mulch, which would help sequester carbon and hold water in the ground when rain comes, said west Santa Rosa resident Wendy Krupnick, a longtime sustainable agriculture consultant and instructor at Santa Rosa Junior College.

“It’s a huge climate minus with the trucking,” Krupnick said. “It should be a climate plus.”

Renewable Sonoma’s misfortune caps a tumultuous decade for Bakx and his partners. He is the former lead of Sonoma Compost, which operated at the Sonoma County Central Landfill on Mecham Road, west of Cotati, from 1993 to 2015, when it was shut down over concerns about rainwater washing off compost piles and into nearby Stemple Creek.

A lawsuit filed by neighbors under the federal Clean Water Act led to the compost site’s closure. It targeted the county, Sonoma Compost and the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency — now Zero Waste Sonoma — over the violations, for which state water regulators also had put the county on notice. In 2016, plans for a new compost site at the landfill were scrapped over continued opposition and legal threats from neighbors.

The county’s green waste has been trucked to composting sites in Mendocino, Napa and Marin counties ever since — and in increasing amounts, as residents have become more aware of the importance of keeping organics out of the landfill, where their decomposition in the absence of oxygen produces methane, a greenhouse gas that is more than 30 times more potent as a heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide.

California cities and counties also are mandated by state law to make significant inroads on diverting organic waste under Senate Bill 1383, a 2016 law that goes into effect Jan. 1.

The law calls for mandatory organic waste collection from residential and commercial entities as well as edible food recovery from large commercial food producers to avoid waste and support services to those who are food insecure.

Among its provisions is a requirement that the state reduce disposal of green waste in landfills by 75% by 2025, compared to 2014, and that no less than 20% of currently landfilled, edible food be recovered for human consumption, according to Zero Waste Sonoma.

Zero Waste Sonoma Organics Waste Collections

Organics Tonnages Collected:

Fiscal Year 2015-16: 84,452

FY 2016-17: 80,834

FY 2017-18: 80,887

FY 2018-19: 86,057

FY 2019-20: 94,418

Food Waste Tonnages Collected:

Fiscal Year 2015-16: 4,000

FY 2016-17: 4,861

FY 2017-18: 4,477

FY 2018-19: 6,450

FY 2019-20: 6,856

“That legislation is a game changer for our industry and for California,” Lukacs said. “It’s the first of its kind in California and in the United States.”

Sonoma County can still work toward meeting those thresholds, but without the same benefits it would have enjoyed had the Renewable Sonoma project proven viable.

As a heavily agricultural county, it’s also forgoing the advantages it once enjoyed of readily available, high-quality soil amendments that were widely valued when Sonoma Compost was operating, said Krupnick.

The company’s products were “so much more uniformly, consistently superior to what the other local companies are providing,” she said, “and I think it’s largely their attention to detail and, really, their commitment to production techniques.”

In its absence, many growers simply aren’t using compost at all, Krupnick said. Though some local compost producers make a decent product, their operations don’t come close to matching the volume of Sonoma Compost, she said.

There may be another solution, however.

Martin Mileck, who founded Cold Creek Compost in the Mendocino County community of Potter Valley some three decades ago, was among those vying for the Sonoma County contract in 2017 and 2018 when Renewable Sonoma was selected.

He has been accepting about 20% of Sonoma County’s yard waste at his facility outside Ukiah for the past three years and recently agreed to take 30% of the county’s organics.

And though the county did not choose to contract with him when he proposed developing part of a former dairy site east of Petaluma for a more local compost site, he already was working with the county planning department on permitting and development of an environmental impact report, due to be published in the coming weeks.

Mileck said he always believed his chosen location at the old Texeira Ranch on Stage Gulch Road near Old Adobe Road was superior to one so close to the sensitive Laguna de Santa Rosa. His proposal calls for a less expensive but still “state-of-the-art” process for producing rich compost that includes a significant amount of chicken manure from local poultry producers.

He said there is so much demand for composting capacity in the North Bay that his facility will be used irrespective of what Sonoma County does. The project site previously faced significant headwinds at the county level, where Supervisor David Rabbitt, who represents the area, stood in opposition.

The Renewable Sonoma proposal also faced opposition from neighbors of the Laguna wastewater plant who did not want a commercial-grade compost operation added to the Llano Road property. They worried about extra odors, noise and traffic.

For his part, Mileck was unflattering in his appraisal of Renewable Sonoma, saying he was not surprised the company was unable to follow through on its plans.

“It was mind-boggling the county chose to work with Renewable Sonoma, their former contractor that failed spectacularly,” he said.

“When Leslie announced they had quit, my response was, ‘Way overdue.’ Three years, and you’ve got nothing. Three years, and they didn’t even begin the permitting process, and it’s a process that we’ve been in process for 10 years.”

Cotati Councilwoman Susan Harvey, a veteran member of the Zero Waste board, similarly expressed frustration over the length of negotiations with the company, only to have them lead to nothing.

She noted that part of company’s calculation is determining which cities are going to commit their green waste streams to the county solution — a decision they can’t make until they know what it will cost, which is itself a factor that depends in part on how many participate.

“We just never got any final numbers from them, and it’s just sad, because everybody loves Sonoma Compost,” Harvey said. “And personally, when they were there before, we all utilized their compost, and everybody was very supportive of them, and it’s not an easy thing to site a compost facility. I get it.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to clarify that California, not individual counties, is required by law to reduce disposal of green waste in landfill by the year 2025.

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