Sonoma County compost operations must end by mid-October

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A hard-fought battle over a Clean Water Act lawsuit — costing ratepayers more than $1.1 million — has spelled the end for Sonoma County’s largest compost producer, Sonoma Compost Co.

Under a settlement reached late Thursday night, Sonoma Compost must shut down operations atop the Central Landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati by Oct. 15.

“We’re extremely disappointed and frustrated,” said Alan Seigle, who founded Sonoma Compost with his partner Will Bakx in 1993. “We feel horrible for our employees and the citizens of Sonoma County. This is going to have a huge impact all of our customers — particularly the agricultural community and small-scale farmers.”

The lawsuit, brought by Roger Larsen, a resident of the Happy Acres subdivision near the landfill, alleged Sonoma Compost was polluting the nearby Stemple Creek for years. State water regulators confirmed the composting operation had violated the Clean Water Act, and rainwater catchment ponds on the site overflowed at least twice during the last rainy season, contaminating the creek. Regulators threatened the county with fines of $10,000 a day.

The deal, finalized Friday , means the composting site will be gone by October — in time for the rainy season — alleviating the potential that rainwater will hit compost heaps and pollute the creek below. The agreement settles the lawsuit between Sonoma County, the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency and residents who filed suit under a group called Renewed Efforts of Neighbors Against Landfill Expansion, representing about 100 households in the neighborhood.

“I’m very happy the pollution will stop; that’s what the lawsuit was all about,” Larsen said, though he expressed reservations about a potential new composting site.

The settlement requires the Waste Management Agency to pay the plaintiff’s attorney fees of $131,000, and an additional $100,000 to the Oakland-based Rose Foundation to restore Stemple Creek and the Bodega Bay watershed. The waste agency, which has racked up at least $500,000 in attorney’s fees since August, also must cover Sonoma County’s legal fees of $375,000.

The deal does not include Sonoma Compost, and the civil suit between Larsen’s group and Sonoma Compost is not resolved, said Michael Lozeau, an attorney who represents neighbors behind the lawsuit.

“They were there at the negotiating table last week, but they weren’t willing to negotiate with us,” Lozeau said.

The agreement allows Sonoma Compost to challenge the deal in an attempt to remain open, but the company’s owners said they did not plan to do so.

Costs for the lawsuit, and the settlement, ultimately are covered by ratepayers through curbside pickup fees and tipping charges paid when dropping off yard waste at the Central Landfill. Those rates already have gone up this year and are expected to rise even more.

Under a 25-year deal finalized April 1 that permanently transfers responsibility for the county’s dump to Arizona-based Republic Services, which runs the 170-acre Central Landfill, fees for dropping off waste at the landfill went up by more than $19, to $54 per ton. Now, so-called tipping fees are slated to go up again to cover the cost of trucking yard waste out of the county, to a proposed $84 per ton.

Supervisor Shirlee Zane, the county’s representative overseeing waste matters, said the deal was not easy to reach.

“Nobody is happy about outhauling,” Zane said, referencing the need to haul material out of the county if Sonoma Compost is closed. “But this is really the cost of doing business. Settling this, and outhauling temporarily, is a lot less expensive than dealing with ongoing legal fees and fines of $10,000 per day for polluting.”

Curbside pickup fees also will go up, according to officials with the Waste Management Agency. It currently spends about $3.5 million a year to haul out of the county some yard waste that it doesn’t have the capacity to compost on site. Trucking all yard waste off site is expected to cost $5.5 million a year, according to agency officials.

To cover those costs, waste officials said, monthly rates for curbside pickup are slated to increase between $1 and $2 per can.

With Sonoma Compost being forced to shut in five months, company officials said they will have to stop accepting yard waste next month in order to process the material they have on site. Curbside pickup will continue, but the Waste Management Agency will be responsible for taking over composting operations.

Henry Mikus, the waste agency’s executive director, said until the 10-member board settles on a site for a new compost facility, yard waste will be picked up and trucked to various locations in the region, which could include Mendocino County, Napa County, Novato or Vacaville.

Waste agency officials are expected to choose a permanent site for construction of a new compost facility at a regular meeting next month, but an environmental review names a new site at the Central Landfill as the preferred location. Building a new compost facility at the county’s dump on Mecham Road is expected to cost at least $52 million.

Larsen, the plaintiff in the lawsuit against Sonoma Compost, was cool to the idea of a new facility located so close to the disputed one.

“I still have concerns about the new site at the Central Landfill,” he said. “If they’re focused on that site, they’re going to have another fight on their hands.”

Driven by the potential for Clean Water Act fines, the closure of Sonoma Compost seemed inevitable when company officials said this week that it would not be able to meet an October deadline to build a new $1.6 million overflow pond on its 25-acre site to stop polluted rainwater from entering Stemple Creek, as required by county officials.

The pond construction was stymied by an environmental review that revealed the site contains habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander.

Scores of backyard gardeners, farmers and landscapers, as well as powerful environmental and agricultural groups, attempted to avert the shutdown of Sonoma Compost this month, but those efforts have been fruitless. Many said the closure will negatively affect the environment by increasing greenhouse gases associated with trucking yard waste out of Sonoma County, and lead to higher business costs for local farmers.

“Sonoma Compost is by far the cheapest organic material available to farmers,” said Evan Wiig, executive director of the Farmers Guild, a local nonprofit organization that advocates for sustainable farming practices. “Sonoma County stands out as a leader in sustainability, so to think that something so integral to our local economy and our progressive food movement is going away is heartbreaking.”

County officials have committed to composting as part of a long-term strategy to divert as much waste out of the landfill as possible, but who will oversee the effort after 2017 is unknown.

At present, compost is the responsibility of the Waste Management Agency, but the joint agreement between the county and each of its nine cities is set to expire in 2017. Whether the agreement will be renewed is unclear.

If that agreement expires, the agency would dissolve and composting operations could be handed over to Republic Services, which could then take over composting or contract with another company. But county supervisors, who act as landlords for the landfill, said those details haven’t been hammered out.

“It’s a $50 million state-of-the-art facility, so it’s going to have to be a large company with deep pockets,” Zane said. “And they’re going to have to have experience in designing and operating these kind of facilities. Republic does have that in their background, so they seem like the most likely choice.”

Rick Downey, division manager for Republic Services, said there have been no formal conversations about who will take over the compost operation if the Waste Management Agency agreement is not renewed.

“We’d have no problem overseeing compost, but we’d have to make some decisions as a company whether we would do it ourselves, or do the smart thing and contract with Sonoma Compost,” Downey said.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or On Twitter @ahartreports.

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