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New compost site scrapped at Sonoma County’s Central Landfill

After nine years and $1 million of study, Sonoma County waste officials say they’re abandoning plans to build a new composting facility at the county landfill west of Cotati.

The Sonoma County Waste Management Agency announced Monday that as part of a legal settlement with landfill neighbors, it would no longer pursue the green waste project, pegged at up to $55 million.

“This is not, I think, government’s proudest moment,” said Don Schwartz, Rohnert Park assistant city manager and an agency board member. “On the other hand, it’s better to spend $1 million than $50 million and not have a good solution.”

Under terms of the settlement, the neighbors will dismiss their lawsuit if the agency votes next month to rescind certification of the environmental report for the project and other documents related to the Central Landfill site.

The decision, which won’t be finalized until an agency board meeting next month, marks the second time in a year that neighbors have successfully blocked a composting operation at the Mecham Road landfill.

In October, the previous green waste operator, Sonoma Compost Co., was forced to shut down its longtime site atop the landfill following a federal Clean Water Act lawsuit by neighbors of the nearby Happy Acres subdivision, who go by the name Renewed Efforts of Neighbors Against Landfill Expansion, or RENALE.

In that case, the neighbors alleged that runoff from compost piles covering much of the 25-acre site was polluting Stemple Creek. Water quality regulators took notice and required upgrades that ultimately proved onerous.

The closure of that facility forced the agency, a 10-member joint powers authority formed in 1992, to begin hauling 100,000 tons of green waste to other counties at a cost to ratepayers of about $4.5 million per year.

The latest setback means the agency will, for the foreseeable future, have to continue hauling grass clippings, food waste and other green waste by truck to facilities in Ukiah, Napa, Novato and Vacaville, something local leaders have long said they hoped to avoid.

But the Central Landfill site is “no longer viable as a practical matter” for a number of reasons, said Patrick Carter, interim executive director for the waste agency.

The composting industry has matured since the agency was formed nearly three decades ago, and it no longer may be necessary for the agency to take such a direct role in the management of a facility, Carter said. A number of private groups have contacted the agency to discuss other potential solutions, Carter said, declining to be more specific.

In addition, environmental regulations have become more stringent, adding new costs, Carter said.

Uncertainty about the agency’s future is another concern. After receiving a one-year extension to its 25-year life, the agency’s operating agreement is now set to sunset in 2018. That made its ability to finance a new facility “extremely curtailed,” Carter said.

Then there’s the issue of whether Republic Services, the giant Arizona-?based company that took over permanent operation of the landfill from the county last year, supported or was willing to operate a new compost facility on the county-owned property.

The company’s 25-year, $650 million deal called for Republic to consider operating a compost site but did not require one.

Carter suggested Republic probably wasn’t terribly interested in taking on that responsibility in the current environment.

“Their main emphasis is to make the landfill work on that site,” Carter said.

The latest suit alleged the environmental report fell short in its study of impacts on air quality, traffic and endangered tiger salamander habitat.

Carter said the report was sound, but that even had the agency prevailed, it could have faced legal appeals that could have left ratepayers “chasing good money after bad,” he said.

Neighbor Roger Larsen said he feels the agency tried to force a new facility onto the Central Landfill location when other locations, like a 400-acre cattle ranch east of Petaluma, would have been a far better and less expensive choice. County officials have said they were opposed to that site.

“I think they can still do it,” Larsen said. “They just need to find the right place to do it.”

While disappointing for the agency, the decision “doesn’t mean that composting in Sonoma County is dead,” Carter said.

Instead, it allows the agency to begin a public discussion about what the future of composting in the county should look like, he said. “If moving past this site helps something better come along, then it’s a necessary thing,” Carter said.

There are a range of options for how the county could handle its green waste, Carter said. Some communities simply grind the material up and apply it to agricultural fields. Others turn it into biogas in anaerobic digesters, he said. The Laguna Water Treatment Plant in Llano Road is home to several such structures and is experimenting with how other materials, including fats, oils, grease and food waste, can be turned into methane.

Permanently hauling green waste to other counties may also be a viable solution in some instances, Carter said. Petaluma sends its green waste, along with its garbage, to Redwood Landfill in Novato.

It may make financial sense for Rohnert Park to do the same on green waste, Schwartz said. The city has made it clear that it would make the decision that was in the best interests of its ratepayers, he said.

City officials questioned the proposed size of the now-scrapped facility, designed to handle twice the volume of the green waste of the former site.

Now that that’s off the table, Schwartz said he’s optimistic the agency will start to look at “a broader range of solutions.”

“Keeping composting in the county is a noble goal, but it’s not necessarily cheaper, nor is it necessarily environmentally better,” he said. “I think this board is going to use this as an opportunity to really rethink how we’re doing this.”

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

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