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Compost swap at Santa Rosa sewage plant could ease path for green-waste site, but neighbors skeptical

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What are biosolids?

Nutrient-rich organic materials leftover after treatment of domestic sewage at a wastewater treatment facility. When treated, biosolids can be applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Santa Rosa biosolids, by the numbers

32,600: Tons of biosolids generated each year. That’s 283 pounds of biosolids per person served by the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves 230,000 residents from Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and portions of Sonoma County.

$2.16 million: How much it costs Santa Rosa to deal with its biosolids each year. It deals with those in a variety of ways, including land application, composting, taking it to the landfill and other operating agreements.

7: Number of non-city-owned properties that take land applications of Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant biosolids. Four other properties are city owned Brown, Stone and Alpha farms in the north part of the county. Land application is restricted during rainy season.

$4 million; $10 million: Capital investment needed to keep current city-run composting facility going, with $4 million representing near-term investment and $10 million representing the longterm investment necessary, according to city documents.

Timeline

The following is a rough timeline for the construction and operation of a new proposed compost plant in southeast Santa Rosa. The proposed facility has already endured numerous delays thanks to leadership shakeups at Zero Waste Sonoma, which slowed negotiations progress.

2017-2019: Project review and request for proposal process

2019-2020: Negotiation of pre-development agreement, site selection

2020-2022: Negotiation of site lease, environmental review, permitting

2021-2022: Construction

2022: Planned start of operations

In the latest bid to find a new home for a commercial operation that would handle Sonoma County’s green waste, local officials may seek to swap one compost operation for another.

That’s the move taking shape at the Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities, which is looking to outsource — and thereby relocate — the composting of organic material left over from treatment of human waste at the city’s wastewater treatment plant off Llano Road.

Should another company take on that task, it could open up the current biosolids composting site for a long-sought commercial composting plant that processes yard and food waste.

The move comes with a financial upside for the wastewater plant, saving $4 million in short-term capital improvement costs and another $10 million in long-term needs, according to documents presented in September to the Board of Public Utilities. Santa Rosa spends $2.16 million dealing with biosolids each year, according to city documents.

A deal for a new composting operation could generate rental income as well.

But neighbors have already stepped up to oppose a green waste operation, taking aim at a prior proposal to locate a new compost facility on city land just north of the treatment plant — about 500 yards away from the new favored location.

Officials have acknowledged the latest move may not mollify opponents.

“It’s farther away from neighbors,” said Sonoma County Supervisor Susan Gorin, a board member on the county’s waste management agency, Zero Waste Sonoma, which is also part of ongoing negotiations over a new compost site. “I suspect they’re still concerned about the amount of truck traffic, but that’s the point of the environmental impact review.”

Because of the proximity to the previous site, neighbor Greg Eicher said he doesn’t feel any better about the proposed compost plant.

“The reality is, it really isn’t (farther away),” Eicher said. “It’s farther away from a couple of homes, but it’s pretty much unchanged as far as we’re concerned.”

Eicher and his wife, Gulten, are relatively new to the neighborhood, having moved to Walker Avenue five years ago.

Sonoma County Farm Bureau Executive Director Tawny Tesconi and her family have lived there for going on five decades. Tesconi, the former county fair general manager and retired head of General Services, said composting is important for the county and for agriculture, but she doesn’t think the location is right for what she called a large, industrial composting operation.

“It’s not wood chips and manure,” she said.

Will Bakx, whose company Renewable Sonoma is angling for the acreage to set up the compost operation, said they always preferred the existing biosolids site, which is encircled by the wastewater plant.

“We believe operating on an existing composting site is a plus,” he said.

Gorin, who previously served on the Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities, said the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant spent years aggressively buying up adjoining land in an effort to create a buffer zone and be a good neighbor. The plant handles sewage from 230,000 residents in Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and portions of unincorporated Sonoma County.

Emma Walton, deputy director of engineering resources for Santa Rosa Water, said officials have been looking for ways to lower the cost of dealing with biosolids, the nutrient-rich organic materials left over after treatment of domestic sewage.

What are biosolids?

Nutrient-rich organic materials leftover after treatment of domestic sewage at a wastewater treatment facility. When treated, biosolids can be applied as fertilizer to improve and maintain productive soils and stimulate plant growth, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Santa Rosa biosolids, by the numbers

32,600: Tons of biosolids generated each year. That’s 283 pounds of biosolids per person served by the Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant, which serves 230,000 residents from Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Sebastopol and portions of Sonoma County.

$2.16 million: How much it costs Santa Rosa to deal with its biosolids each year. It deals with those in a variety of ways, including land application, composting, taking it to the landfill and other operating agreements.

7: Number of non-city-owned properties that take land applications of Laguna Wastewater Treatment Plant biosolids. Four other properties are city owned Brown, Stone and Alpha farms in the north part of the county. Land application is restricted during rainy season.

$4 million; $10 million: Capital investment needed to keep current city-run composting facility going, with $4 million representing near-term investment and $10 million representing the longterm investment necessary, according to city documents.

Timeline

The following is a rough timeline for the construction and operation of a new proposed compost plant in southeast Santa Rosa. The proposed facility has already endured numerous delays thanks to leadership shakeups at Zero Waste Sonoma, which slowed negotiations progress.

2017-2019: Project review and request for proposal process

2019-2020: Negotiation of pre-development agreement, site selection

2020-2022: Negotiation of site lease, environmental review, permitting

2021-2022: Construction

2022: Planned start of operations

The plant composts about 11,000 tons, about a third of the total generated by the plant each year. Of the remainder, the city trucks 3,260 tons to landfills, applies 21,190 tons to land, offers up 7,824 tons for outside composting and makes 326 tons available to a company that makes liquid fertilizer, according to Board of Public Utilities documents.

Meanwhile, most local green waste is getting shipped out of the county, at considerable cost to curbside customers — $7.6 million since 2016. The outhauling stems from the closure of the previous commercial compost facility run by the predecessor of Renewable Sonoma at the county landfill west of Cotati. The compost site was shuttered in late 2015 after a bruising Clean Water Act lawsuit that accused the operation of polluting nearby Stemple Creek. The lawsuit cost ratepayers more than $1.1 million.

Chris Grabill, a local contractor and member of the Santa Rosa Board of Public Utilities, said the goal is to keep green waste in Sonoma County.

“It is a countywide interest to really try to accomplish relocating and diverting our waste,” Grabill said. “We want to keep it here instead of having all of those vehicle miles traveled and costs. … It’s bad for the climate.”

The goal of the county waste management agency is to guarantee all of the government entities it represents send their green-bin material to a new central facility and pay for that composting through ratepayer bills.

Petaluma is the only municipality not in the mix because it sends its green waste and garbage to Redwood Landfill in Marin County.

Any deal for a new compost operation would be subject to environmental review and contingent on a separate, successful bid to handle the biosolids operation at the Laguna plant — a decision not expected to come until early 2020.

You can reach Staff Writer Tyler Silvy at 707-526-8667 or at tyler.silvy@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @tylersilvy.

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