Sonoma County has serious waste challenges as well as opportunities. Central Landfill, our publicly owned 400-acre disposal site near Petaluma, stopped landfilling operations in 2005 due to still unresolved Regional Water Quality Control Board liner and leachate issues. This means that five or more days per week, fifty-two weeks a year, 65 long haul trucks transport thousands of tons of our waste to other controversial landfills – Redwood in Marin County, Potrero Hills in Solano County and Keller Canyon in Contra Costa County.
Much of that material does not need to be landfilled. Though our 2006 diversion rate was an impressive 64%, the 2007 Sonoma County Waste Characterization Study reports that 70% of what was still being discarded is: Compostable (32%), Divertible (25.4%) or Potentially Divertible (12.3%). This suggests that 90% diversion is within our reach and the long haul impacts of the remainder and other landfill issues should be looked at differently. (See Page 10: and 12: http://www.recyclenow.org/SonomaCountyWasteCharacterizationStudy2007.pdf and http://www.sonoma-county.org/tpw/pdf/CentralDisposalSite_FactSheet.pdf)
Two other big challenges facing us are flow control and the ongoing financial stability of the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency, the waste planning joint powers authority (JPA) of our nine cities and the County of Sonoma. Flow control agreements insure waste is taken to particular disposal facilities and that the tipping fees collected are used to support a specific waste system. If I understand correctly, our JPA does not currently have flow control agreements with our cities. So as the volume of waste disposed plummets – due to the recession, waste diversion and waste haulers bypassing the County disposal facilities, tipping fees have dropped. With both the JPA and the County Department of Transportation and Public Works’ Integrated Waste Division, which together administer and operate the waste system, directly dependent on tipping fees, this has led to insufficient funding for the operation of the County disposal system and future landfill closure and dramatically reducing the funding for waste reduction efforts.
The County’s answer to these compounding challenges is to divest itself of the entire County waste management system – to sell the Central Disposal Facility and the five satellite transfer stations. The logic is that it will be easier for a private, well-financed business with landfill management experience to get the required permits to reopen and expand the facility and cover future closure costs. The privatization process, which began in 2007, is being handled as a confidential real estate transaction negotiated behind closed doors to protect the business interests of the potential buyers. Negotiations will be complete in June and obligatory presentations and workshops on the sale will then be offered to the public.
Opponents want these divestiture talks to be conducted publicly because they will greatly affect future trash and recycling fees, diversion rates and greenhouse gas emissions. Some feel the County has put the cart before the horse and are in violation of the Brown Act. Flow control is still a huge issue – but now with the added twist of privatization.
North Bay Corporation is one of the most vocal opponents. Owned by the Ratto Group, a Santa Rosa based holding company with 18 subsidiaries operating in Sonoma, Marin, Mendocino, Lake and Mariposa counties, North Bay is now the service provider for all Sonoma County except for the town of Sonoma and Lake Sonoma.
North Bay is planning a state-of-the-art materials recovery facility (MRF). Proposed before the landfill closure was an issue, North Bay now claims this MRF will take Sonoma County to a 90% recycling rate. This is a very commendable goal provided it does not involve large scale mixed waste sorting or jeopardize existing diversion programs and businesses.
It would also increase the chances that the new landfill owner will seek to import out-of-county waste. Some feel it would be good to accept waste from Marin and Mendocino, but could we stop it there?
Many Sonoma County activists, and most members of the Local Task Force For Solid Waste, think selling the landfill will compound the problems and increase costs. And, there is still very serious work to be done to reduce the amount of waste discarded. So the real question is whether the decision makers, their staffs, and ultimately the residents of Sonoma County, are willing to slow or halt the privatization process and work toward 90%. Or will they stay the course, offer a token window of opportunity and then say “Sorry, it’s too late. We have an agreement with company ABC and have to move forward.”
Since the County was the first in the US to commit to reducing greenhouse gases, it is already well positioned to reduce its waste system’s carbon footprint and join the other Bay Area municipalities moving toward zero waste. Given that landfills are the largest source of man-made methane emissions in the US and the impact of landfill emissions is being grossly underestimated, this issue is urgent in many more ways then one. Continued public ownership of the landfill will allow us to keep tight control and insure that decisions are made by policy not just short-term financial concerns.
Landfill Forum Held Last Spring
On Monday, March 30, 2009 a forum was held in the City of Santa Rosa Council Chambers. Facilitated by Tanya Narath of the Leadership Institute for Ecology and the Economy, www.ecoleader.org, it was organized as a series of quick presentations followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A session. A very successful event, the forum did a very good job of laying out the issues and the perspectives of each of the stakeholders.
The line up was quite impressive. The first speaker was Assemblyman and former Waste Management Board Member Wes Chesbro, followed by Michael Allen, Senator Wiggins’ Santa Rosa District Office Director. Other participants were Santa Rosa City Council Members Jane Bender and Gary Wysocky, Sonoma Transportation and Public Works Director Phillip Demery, County Health Services Director Walter Kruse, Local Task Force For Solid Waste Chair Michael Anderson, North Coast Regional Water Quality Control’s Watershed Protection Division Chief David Leland, and, representing North Bay Corporation, Builder/Developer Alan Strachan.
The event was sponsored by an array of local groups including League of Women Voters, Leadership Institute, the Sierra Club, the Climate Protection Campaign and many others. Approximately 90 people attended: mostly elected officials, municipal and agency staff, activists and waste industry personnel. Though it was very important for these representatives to attend, there were not many members of the “public” there. No disrespect of past or present efforts intended, but the public’s lack of understanding on the local and global impacts of the closure and the sale, compounded by the timing of most of the related meetings over the last four years, make it challenging for them to participate. The media coverage of this event, as well as the outreach of all the involved groups, may very well help change this situation.
The Sonoma County Local Task Force For Solid Waste Zero Waste Sub Committee has been discussing a Zero Waste presentation to the Board of Supervisors followed by a 3-hour workshop showcasing the efforts of Bay Area zero waste municipal leaders – San Francisco, Oakland and others. Perhaps this can happen this coming Fall.