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Supervisors approve private operation of Sonoma County landfill

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A decade after its Central Landfill was closed by water-quality regulators, Sonoma County officials signed off on a series of agreements Tuesday that represent the final step in an arduous effort to permanently transfer responsibility for the 170-acre dump to a private company.

The new agreements and amendments to existing ones mean the Arizona-based garbage company Republic Services is slated to take over operations April 1 under a 25-year deal worth an estimated $650 million.

“I think this is a good and historic day for the county in terms of what we do with our solid waste going forward,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose 2nd District is home to the landfill west of Cotati.

Supervisors, who voted 5-0 on the package, expressed relief and gratitude to staff that the agreements allowing the deal to move forward had finally been struck. Rabbitt said the effort to privatize operations has been “kind of a tremendous moving puzzle” because of the way the county had to get agreement on a wide range of technical and legal issues from all the cities that send their garbage to the 44-year-old landfill.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane called it a “really fabulous agreement” that brought the county, the waste management agency, Republic and eight of the cities together to reopen the landfill long-term while creating incentive for recycling.

“Our whole goal was let’s take away the financial incentive of putting trash in the hole,” and instead encourage people to reduce and recycle, Zane said. The yearslong effort involved deep research into the best waste practices around the world, she said.

“I think we have turned over just about every single stone or piece of trash in this discussion,” she said.

The handover by April 1 was considered crucial if Republic was to be able to complete a badly needed 10-acre expansion of the landfill before the fall. Failure to complete the new cell by then could force Republic to increase the amount of garbage hauled to other counties until the new work is completed.

Currently, because of space restrictions, 100 to 150 tons of garbage per day are shipped to landfills in other counties. If construction is delayed, more garbage would need to be hauled out of the county to preserve the fast-dwindling landfill capacity, said Susan Klassen, the county’s transportation and public works director.

The goal is to avoid a “worst-case scenario” where all 800 tons of the garbage produced in the county daily would be hauled elsewhere, she said.

Under the deal, tipping fees charged to waste haulers will increase to $126.45 per ton for waste from cities and $122.45 per ton for county areas. These fees will result in customers’ bills increasing approximate 2.2 to 3 percent, Klassen said.

That does not, however, include increased costs stemming from the composting operation’s legal and regulatory woes. Tipping fees for green waste could double under a proposal being considered by the waste agency board, but they have yet to be approved and it is unclear by how much customer bills would increase.

Sonoma County attempted to sell the landfill outright to Republic Services after it was closed in 2005 by state water regulators. But, in Zane’s lighthearted retelling of that chapter of county history, “the villagers came to us with pitchforks and trash bags and said ‘No, we want to keep our dump!’ And here we are six years later.”

The county struck what is known as a Master Operating Agreement with Republic in 2013 that calls for the county to retain ownership of the property. Negotiations with cities over liability issues, mostly related to closed landfill sites and transfer stations around the county, dragged on and were only recently resolved.

Water regulators created an eleventh-hour threat to that agreement when they required the composting operation atop the dump to stop allowing runoff from compost piles to reach surrounding creeks. A federal Clean Water Act lawsuit by neighbors followed.

The potential liability from both gave Republic officials significant pause, but a deal was worked out to place all of the financial liability related to the composting operation on the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, which manages the countywide compost program.

Roger Larsen, a resident of the Happy Acres subdivision near the landfill, said the county, the waste management agency and Sonoma Compost Co. have been the “single largest polluter of water” in the county over the past 20 years.

Larsen’s group Renewed Efforts of Neighbors Against Landfill Expansion, sued last year over the runoff. Larsen asked the supervisors whether the county and Republic, which will jointly hold the water discharge permit for the landfill, can legally transfer their liability for that pollution to the waste management agency.

“You pretending and a federal judge deciding are two different things and that’s pretty much where this is going,” Larsen said.

The agreements approved Tuesday are intended to resolve both Republic’s and the county’s liability concerns over the composting operation. The first protects Republic from costs associated with the compost litigation. That agreement will remain in force until the Clean Water Act lawsuit is resolved. The second calls for the waste management agency to indemnify the county for liability related to the lawsuit by: depositing $5 million in an escrow account over the next two years to cover county costs; building a 3-million gallon holding pond to help prevent further discharges to local waterways; and agreeing to cease composting operations and begin hauling green waste to other facilities if the new pond is not complete and operational by Oct. 1 .

The compost operation combined two smaller ponds last fall into a single 2-million gallon pond to help reduce the risk of discharges. The agency has spent $450,000 since October to pump about 6.2 million gallons of compost wastewater out of the ponds to area treatment plants. Nevertheless, heavy rains caused an estimated 600,000 gallons to escape.

The second pond, which is expected to cost $1.6 million, aims to increase the storage and pumping capacity of the compost operation. It is meant to be a short-term solution until the composting operation can move to a new site, said Henry Mikus, executive director of the waste agency. He said he does not see any difficulty getting the new pond constructed by Oct. 1.

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

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