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Sonoma County yard waste compost operation in peril

Sonoma County’s beleaguered composting program now looks likely to shut down as legal and environmental challenges facing its operation atop the Central Landfill continue to mount.

If the closure that many now see as inevitable happens, thousands of tons of yard debris will need to be hauled to facilities outside the county, with disposal fees rising sharply to pay for the additional shipping costs.

“We’re going to have out-haul. Clearly that’s the writing on the wall,” Supervisor Shirlee Zane said. “It’s a huge disappointment, because ideally we’d like to be able to contain all of these programs and do this ourselves.”

The Sonoma County Waste Agency, a 10-member joint powers authority made up of nine cities and Sonoma County, has been struggling to contain the fallout of a federal lawsuit alleging that wastewater from the 25-acre composting operation has been polluting Stemple Creek for years.

Rainwater falls on open-air rows of compost, leaches through the piles, and is collected in what is now a 2-million gallon containment pond. During heavy rains, wastewater from the pond has spilled into the landfill’s stormwater collection system, which drains to the creek.

The lawsuit, filed by neighbors of the nearby Happy Acres subdivision, names the county, which owns the landfill, the waste agency, which leases the site, and Sonoma Compost, the private company that for more than 20 years has run the compost operation.

Water quality regulators last year ordered the county to end the discharges to the creek or face fines of $10,000 a day. The agency pumped more than 6 million gallons of water out of the pond and to regional treatment plants over the winter, but an estimated 600,000 gallons still escaped during heavy rains.

As part of a deal meant to limit the liability of the county and the landfill operator, Republic Services, the agency agreed to build a second, 3-million-gallon pond on the site or shut down operations by Oct. 1.

But those plans were derailed shortly before last week’s board meeting when three things happened:

*An attorney for the neighbors’ group questioned an agency environmental report that concluded endangered California tiger salamander would not be impacted by the pond construction.

*County officials called “inaccurate” the report’s claim there was no potential habitat for the salamanders on the site. A county biologist walked the property and found “many mammal burrows,” which can be used by salamanders.

*Republic Services informed the agency that the pond’s location would require it to amend its state solid waste permit, and attorneys at the Arizona-based company refused out of fear of being drawn into the ongoing federal lawsuit.

Rick Downey, division manager for Republic Services, agrees that removal of the material from the site now seems inevitable. He called it “unfortunate” that the permitting requirement wasn’t recognized sooner.

“We wanted to make this work. We tried everything,” Downey said. “The problem is things don’t get followed up on in timely manner.”

Downey acknowledged that the 25-acre compost area atop the landfill is prime space for his company to use to fill with garbage someday, but he denied that was part of the company’s decision-making in deciding not to allow the permit to be reopened to include the wastewater pond.

The waste agency’s executive director, Henry Mikus, wasn’t willing to concede the need to begin hauling out of the county the 100,000 tons of green waste processed by Sonoma Compost every year.

“We got news the day before the board meeting that was problematic and challenging, but no decisions have been made,” Mikus said. “We are working to look at what the options and alternatives are, including out-haul.”

He called hauling out the waste a “strong possibility,” but he declined to speculate on other options.

The company’s compost is in high demand among local farmers and vineyard owners, especially as more are eschewing synthetic fertilizers for organic growing methods, said Tim Tesconi, community relations coordinator for the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Big growers like the Dutton family use up to 3,000 yards of it every year, Tesconi said.

About 40 percent of the compost is purchased by county farmers, Mikus said.

Compost improves soil, reduces erosion, controls weeds, and reduces water usage, Sonoma County Farm Bureau President John Azevedo said in a letter to the agency.

He urged the board not to allow removing the compost “as a long-term solution.” He also expressed support for a new state-of-the-art facility to be constructed at the 400-acre Central Landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati. He also expressed opposition to a possible site on Stage Gulch Road east of Petaluma because of concerns about conversion of farmland.

Happy Acres resident Roger Larsen, part of the group suing over the compost operation, said it’s possible the “economic realities” of the increasing costs of composting at the Central Landfill, including building new ponds and hauling wastewater, have begun to sink in.

The estimates of the costs for a new facility at the landfill have ranged from $15 million to $54 million, with $44 million the most recent figure.

Work on identifying a site and designing and financing a new compost facility is expected to move forward even as operations at Sonoma Compost wind down. Officials from the company, which employs about 20 people, could not be reached for comment Friday.

Some green material is already being shipped to a facility near Vacaville since the footprint of the operation was scaled back 18 percent to reduce runoff, Mikus said.

If complete shut-down is required, the agency would have to nearly double its fees, from $54 a ton to $98, to pay for the transportation costs and disposal fees at other facilities, according to a preliminary agency analysis. That would result in a $2- to $4-per-month increase in the cost charged by haulers for a typical 32-gallon yard waste bin, according to the agency.

If all that green waste starts heading to other facilities, Zane wants to see it return as compost so residents and farmers can continue to use the product. Whether that will be logistically or financially feasible remains to be seen.

In any case, Zane predicts there will be a gap of at least two years before a modern compost facility can be built locally. She said she’s confident that a large company, like hauler North Bay Corp. or Republic Services, could help finance and run such a facility.

“I think if you provide a state-of-the-art containment facility, where you don’t have discharges, you don’t have smells and you don’t have any of these problems, I believe that there is a profit to be made,” she said.

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

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