Sonoma County approves plans for new compost facility

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Just as Sonoma County’s largest compost company readies to shut down its operations atop the Central Landfill on Mecham Road west of Cotati, county waste officials are ramping up plans to construct a more robust composting site — a new multimillion-dollar facility expected to alleviate environmental pollution issues that have long plagued the current operation.

The future of green waste in Sonoma County reached a turning point Wednesday, when the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency board voted unanimously to require the new facility be built at the county’s 400-acre Central Landfill, just west of the current composting site run by Sonoma Compost, a private company.

“We’re moving forward, and we want to keep our compost local,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who represents the county on waste-related matters. “This is going to ensure it stays local for our farmers and gardeners.”

The county rejected an alternative site on Stage Gulch Road, concluding that the Central Landfill location had fewer negative environmental impacts.

Waste officials have sought to identify a future compost site for years that can accommodate nearly 200,000 tons of green waste annually without polluting nearby Stemple Creek. It could be years, however, before the new composting operation — expected to cost $52 million — is up and running.

A settlement reached in May, prompted by a lawsuit under the federal Clean Water Act, requires that Sonoma Compost cease operations by Oct. 15.

The lawsuit was brought by a group of about 100 neighbors in the Happy Acres subdivision near the Central Landfill. It alleged the composting operation has been polluting the nearby creek for years, blaming the county, the Waste Management Agency and Sonoma Compost.

Roger Larsen, who lives in Happy Acres and spearheaded the lawsuit, agreed to back off the Clean Water Act lawsuit. However, he said Wednesday that he plans to file another lawsuit “soon” challenging the Waste Management Agency’s environmental review, calling it inadequate.

“It’s fatally flawed,” Larsen said. “I’m disappointed. They didn’t evaluate the two sites evenly.”

Henry Mikus, the Waste Management Agency’s executive director, said potential impacts of both sites were adequately reviewed under the California Environmental Quality Act, and that the Central Landfill site is “the environmentally superior alternative.”

According to the environmental review, building a new compost facility there would have fewer unavoidable impacts, and the alternative location on Stage Gulch Road would have more significant negative impacts on air pollution and traffic. Waste officials said producing compost at the Central Landfill site would generate less traffic and air pollution. Officials also said concerns about odors from compost in the future can be lessened by building an enclosed processing building, and a roof on the site would also help prevent pollution from hitting compost piles, then flowing into the creek below.

Larsen disagrees. He said his upcoming lawsuit would also argue that building a new compost facility at the Central Landfill would destroy protected habitat for the endangered California tiger salamander.

Waste officials said those impacts can be decreased by building fencing around the new operation to keep salamanders out, by constructing ramps allowing the salamander to move to an alternative site or by paying money to state and federal environmental regulators for a species protection fund.

Zane said she was not surprised that Larsen planned to sue the county again.

“I expected that. He doesn’t want anything there,” Zane said. “But it’s hard to build anything without lawsuits.”

The Waste Management Agency board’s action certifying the environmental review, then selecting a permanent site for compost in Sonoma County, drew about a half-dozen speakers who said they don’t want compost near their property.

“I am truly disappointed,” said Kathy Ferrando, who spoke against the new site.

Mia Bradford petitioned board members to consider the effect on her neighborhood near the Central Landfill, pointing out that the air is already polluted from the dump.

“There are days when the air quality is so bad we have to leave the house,” she said. “It chokes your lungs up.”

Other concerns voiced by some members on the Waste Management Agency board drew attention to what they called the abrupt closure of Sonoma Compost.

“It’s a travesty,” said Windsor Town Councilwoman Deb Fudge. “It’s a decision we had to make to settle a lawsuit, but unfortunately it caused the closure of a company, and layoffs.”

Fudge did not take issue with approving the environmental review or choosing a permanent compost site.

Zane said she’s heard similar concerns from large-scale agricultural operations, landscaping companies and smaller-scale growers over shuttering Sonoma Compost. She said the Board of Supervisors acknowledged those worries when it signed off on the $650 million deal to turn over landfill operations to Arizona-based Republic Services, highlighting that Sonoma Compost would get the first shot at bidding for the contract at the future site.

The Board of Supervisors has now asked Republic Services to draw up a proposal to build the new compost facility, Zane said Wednesday. However, who would run the compost operation is still an open question.

“We’re comfortable giving the county a proposal,” said Rick Downey, Republic’s operations manager at the landfill. “If we were to take over, we could identify alternative sites though.”

Pam Davis, Sonoma Compost’s general manager, said all of its 26 employees will lose their jobs by October.

“We’ve already lost some because they’ve found other jobs,” Davis said. “We’re continuing to downsize, but we still have people who are processing the material we have on site.”

Davis said Sonoma Compost will stop accepting green waste in July. The Waste Management Agency then plans to begin paying to outhaul yard debris to surrounding counties, causing fees for dropping off waste at the landfill to jump, as well as curbside pickup rates.

The increases will vary by city or county jurisdiction. So-called tipping fees are expected to increase from around $55 per ton to around $77 per ton — on the low end. Rates customers pay at the curb will also rise from $1.72 per month to $5.17 per month, depending on location.

Meanwhile, Davis said Sonoma Compost customers are stocking up.

“We’re the busiest we’ve ever been because people know we’re going to be out of compost by the end of summer,” Davis said. “Before they’d buy one truckload, now they’re buying four truckloads.”

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

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