Sonoma County officials seek to resurrect regional green waste composting operation

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The search for a new home for composting Sonoma County’s green waste is moving forward as officials seek to finally end the costly practice of shipping green-bin material off to neighboring counties.

Within several years, the county may again have a single main facility — or several smaller ones — to process grass clippings, food scraps and other green waste, which has been sent by truck to other counties for the past year and a half since the former central site shut down amid a lawsuit over water pollution concerns.

It is not yet clear exactly what form a renewed regional compost operation — long a disputed county matter — would take. But the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency is advancing plans to bring in a private operator to handle the green waste from local cities, with a request for development proposals likely going out later this spring.

And the waste agency — which is on the cusp of securing a new lifeline from local governments — is looking to learn from its past troubles by shifting as much responsibility as possible onto the shoulders of the new private operator.

“Essentially, we’re just the customer at this point,” said Patrick Carter, the waste agency’s executive director. “We’re committing a flow of green waste to a private company on private land, where they assume all of the liabilities for making sure that it is in compliance and operating correctly, in exchange for us committing our flow for 10-plus years. It’s a different model.”

Sonoma Compost Co. processed green waste at the county’s central landfill west of Cotati from 1993 until October 2015, when its closure was triggered by a Clean Water Act lawsuit.

The county began sending green waste to sites in Ukiah, Napa, Novato and Vacaville for disposal, a practice that now costs more than $4.7 million annually, according to Carter.

The county had planned to build a new $55 million compost facility at the landfill, but those plans were scrapped last May due to a second lawsuit — filed by the same group of neighbors that brought the first suit — challenging the site’s environmental review.

Now, nearly a year later, the waste agency is poised to request development proposals after an initial response from 16 interested companies last year.

To guide that process, the agency is holding a public workshop at its board meeting Wednesday at the Santa Rosa City Council chambers, and another one the following Thursday at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial building.

The compost discussions come as the waste agency, a 10-member joint powers authority originally formed in 1992, seeks an indefinite extension of its mandate before a February 2018 expiration date. The Board of Supervisors on Tuesday gave its approval, and eight of the county’s nine cities have so far also consented. Only Santa Rosa remains, and the City Council is expected to take up the matter at its Tuesday meeting.

While some officials remain frustrated with the waste agency over the compost fallout, strong interest exists among county leaders in finding a local home for a regional green waste operation.

“I’ve heard loud and clear that people want composting back in the county,” said Supervisor David Rabbitt, whose district includes the central landfill and former compost site.

“We shouldn’t be out-hauling. That’s just a needless expense. We have a county that’s capable of producing compost in the county, we have enough material to justify building a facility … so we need to get it done sooner rather than later.”

Rabbitt was concerned about the prospect that the waste agency might want to put a compost operation on a site untenable to him or his constituents. But his worries were largely alleviated by the agency’s new requirement that a unanimous vote of its board would be necessary to buy property.

Rabbitt said he wanted to see a new compost facility have a roof over it — and ideally walls, too — instead of the open-air format used previously by Sonoma Compost.

He also indicated support for the idea of spreading out multiple compost facilities in the county, possibly along the Highway 101 corridor.

Pam Davis, the former general manager of Sonoma Compost, agreed that a more decentralized composting system could be beneficial — if it works financially.

“Having multiple facilities where we can spread out and serve the local community and be more regional — have something in the east county, have something in the north county, something central or south county — makes a ton of sense,” Davis said. “The issue becomes the economic efficiencies of that.”

Carter said it was not a “foregone conclusion” that the county will end up with multiple regional compost sites instead of one. The process of seeking development proposals would help “figure that puzzle out,” he said.

“There are benefits to both approaches. It’s just a matter of how the folks can make it work with the sites that they end up identifying,” Carter said.

You can reach Staff Writer J.D. Morris at 707-521-5337 or jd.morris@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @thejdmorris.

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