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News: 11/01/2016

County plans for organic composting plants still in limbo

The continuing need for counties and cities to divert waste from ever dwindling landfills into productive recycling and reclamation projects is posing a major problem for Sonoma County. A central composting facility in operation since 1993 was shut down just over a year ago after neighbors sued the county for polluting local water sources.

When Sonoma Compost shut down its Meacham Road facility, management of the county’s Central Landfill was granted to Arizona-based Republic Services as of April 1 this year.

“We do have a need for a good organic compost,” First District Supervisor Susan Gorin said. “That’s what we’ve heard over and over again. People are mourning the loss of Sonoma Compost because they use it for ag operations, backyard farming and agriculture, planting. They like the product so we want make sure that the product they produce is going to meet the needs of the community.”

Since the closure, Sonoma has transferred organic waste still being delivered to the Central Landfill, trucking it to Marin, Napa, Solano and Mendocino counties. An expensive process, trucking long distances also generates pollution. The need to sterilize or clean raw waste from the trucks before loading clean compost prevents them from bringing new compost back to Sonoma, creating a local shortage.

Another consequence of out-hauling, as it is known, is the increased cost of “tipping fees” – the price of transferring waste from local pickup trucks to the long haul trucks. The fees have shot up from less than $40 a ton to over $80 a ton.

County plans to build a nearby replacement composting facility were shelved when the project’s Environmental Impact Report was successfully challenged in May.

New state regulations requiring commercial and other large operations to divert more organic waste to composting are coming on line in January and adding pressure to reduce hauling costs by developing local treatment options.

And just to make things a bit more complicated, the Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) that created the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency (SCWMA) – a consortium of the county and the county’s nine incorporated cities – was due to expire next year, although it now has a one year extension to 2018. The SCWMA is responsible for developing policy and guidelines for all of the partners’ waste programs.

There is not a firm consensus today about renewing that JPA, according to Patrick Carter, executive director of the SCWMA.

Just what the organic composting solution will be is still not clear.

“The previous approach was very much government-centric,” Carter told the county supervisors at their regular meeting on Oct. 18. “We’re basically putting it out to the private sector. You tell us what the best solutions are to deal with the waste.”

Requests for Information – RFIs – were sent to over 40 interested parties in early September. After more than 60 questions were asked about it, an augmented RFI was circulated. When the responses have been digested, the county will ask for concrete proposals to create local compost facilities.

Carter suggested that an alternative to a single site could be multiple facilities with different capacities scattered throughout the county. However, several supervisors questioned whether a multiple facility approach would be economically feasible.

Third District Supervisor Shirlee Zane was certainly not pleased that the Agency’s last solution didn’t pan out.

“We spent over $2 million, I believe, on the EIR … and didn’t go anywhere, so I don’t think anybody is happy about that.”

Zane made it clear that new facilities will have to be funded by future operators.

“We are not in the position to be expending more dollars on any other particular facility.”

Second District Supervisor David Rabbitt emphasized the need to make sure future composting facilities are economically viable.

Supervisor Gorin had a cautionary note for the Agency as well, even if multiple sites are found to be financially feasible.

“Are we transferring one large challenge, with run off and everything else, to scattered site challenges that may have the same kind of concerns, environmental concerns that were present in our current composting operation?”

“We’re going to want assurances and bullet proof agreements with those facilities that we assume no liability for their operations,” Carter responded. “So I think that it’s going to be a lot more difficult to permit a compost facility because the regulations have changed drastically since we opened our facility in 1993, and in the last few years the storm water regulations have really tightened down. I think those facilities have to show their ability to handle the storm water and the air issues a lot more than before, before we even get to a point where we’re entering agreements with the facilities.”

The SCWMA will come back to the Board when it is ready to discuss concrete proposals, sometime early next year.

Meanwhile, Sonoma County’s organic waste keeps on truckin’.


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