Garbage Companies Talk Trash Over City Landfill Contract
By Lori Higa
In Potrero Hill, Recology’s garbage trucks regularly pick-up three kinds of waste – non-recyclables, recyclables and compostable food scraps – in familiar black, blue and green bins. Throughout Southeast San Francisco, the company collects trash from residential customers Monday through Friday, usually between the hours of 6 a.m. to 5 p.m., with occasional late night and early morning pick-ups for commercial clients on 15 main routes.
Recology – formerly NorCal Waste Systems – is a privately-held firm that has a monopoly on collecting the City’s trash, at least in part based on a 1932 voter-mandate. The company transports recyclables to Pier 96, off Cargo Way, to be sorted and processed. At the recycling facility “hiring preference is given to residents in the 94124 and 94107 zip codes, good paying union jobs that start at $18 to $20 an hour and where drivers can earn $100,000 a year. That’s what going to zero waste is all about,” said Kevin Drew, San Francisco Department of the Environment’s (SF Environment) residential zero waste coordinator, “creating green jobs, and reducing the need for landfill in the future.”
Recology consolidates the City’s non-recyclable garbage – roughly 1,100 tons a day – at it’s Tunnel Road transfer station near Candlestick Point. Union drivers then haul the trash over the Bay Bridge to the Altamont landfill near Livermore, which is owned by publicly-held garbage giant Waste Management of Alameda County (WMAC).
In 2009, after reviewing proposals for a new contract to landfill San Francisco’s non-recyclable trash, SF Environment chose Recology over incumbent WMAC. Under the contract – estimated to be worth $115 million – once WMAC’s current contract expires in 2015, Recology will provide landfill services to the City for 10 years or five million tons, whichever comes first. The shift from WMAC to Recology will save the City roughly $150 million compared to WMAC’s bid, according to Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti of Singer & Associates. It will also shift the final dumping grounds for San Francisco’s solid waste from WMAC’s Altamont site to Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill. That site is located in rural Yuba County, near the tiny Sierra foothills town of Wheatland, roughly 130 miles northeast of San Francisco.
Recology proposes to move the trash via diesel-powered trains from a staging area in Oakland. According to David Tucker, WMAC’s government affairs director, his company could transport the garbage using trucks fueled by methane, with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. However, that transportation method wasn’t included in their initial proposal. SF Environment didn’t evaluate landfill bids based on quantitative estimates of polluting air or GHG emissions resulting from proposed transport approaches, instead using broader scoring categories, such as “minimizing and mitigating climate impacts.”
Irene Creps, a retired 76-year old George Washington High School biology teacher who lives in Ingleside Terrace, is from a pioneer family who settled Wheatland in the 1860s, and once owned the land on which Recology’s Yuba County landfill now sits. She’s a member of Yuba Group Against Garbage, or YuGAG, which has been fighting Recology’s expanding landfill for a decade. Founded by fellow Wheatlander Richard Paskowitz, an obstetrician who worked on one of the first dialysis-type machines, YuGAG contends Recology is misrepresenting the true costs of dumping the City’s garbage, the amount and type of trash it plans to put into its landfill and the potential environmental damage it could wreak. “Because it’s off the beaten path, they think they can do things here and no one will notice,” Creps said indignantly.
“This county is one of the poorest in the state, with agriculture its main source of income,” said Creps. Historically, wheat and hops were widely grown in the area, but “rice is king” Creps said, with 30 percent of California’s crop cultivated in Yuba County. The county is the fourth poorest in the state; desperate for the fee revenue it’ll earn from San Francisco’s garbage, estimated by Alberti at $22 million over 10 years.
Yuba County supervisor, newly elected board president, attorney and walnut farmer Roger Abe opposes dumping San Francisco’s garbage into the county’s landfill, at least at existing fee levels. Yuba County born and bred, Abe’s farm family settled in the area in the early 20th century. Abe believes Recology should pay the county three to four times its existing fee; up to $18 a ton.
The area where the landfill is situated consists of deep, Wyman-Ryer loam silt, Class A growing soil that farmers prize, according to a 1969 joint Yuba County-University of California, Davis study authored by soil scientists Fred W. Herbert, Jr. and Eugene L. Begg. “It’s the soil and abundant, pure water around here that makes this area such prime agricultural land,” Creps pointed-out. The landfill is in a Sierra Nevada watershed, with two adjacent outflows, Dry Creek and Best Slough. “The landfill is in the Sacramento Valley flood plain, right next to two creeks and just feet away from the Sierra foothills,” Creps emphasized. “The watershed gets up to 40 inches of rain annually and is historically vulnerable to flooding. That’s why it’s called a ‘flood plain.’”
“Landfills leak; it’s only a question of time,” Paskowitz insisted. “Once groundwater is contaminated, there’s not a dialysis machine big enough that could clean it up,” the doctor-activist warned. “In fact,” YuGAG attorney Brigit Barnes added, “Recology’s own plan shows the necessity of building a berm to prevent overflows into the landfill at the 100-year flood plain line. We are making a challenge on the grounds that FEMA now mandates a 200-year flood line, which will substantially impact the landfill.”
“Instead of a money pit, this landfill is a money machine!” said Paskowitz. While not a fan of WMAC, Paskowitz believes the firm has cleaned up its act at Altamont, where it settled a lawsuit brought against it by the Sierra Club and the City of Livermore by creating a multimillion-dollar open space mitigation fund in 1999. “Altamont seems more appropriate for San Francisco because it doesn’t have a water table and agricultural issues like in Yuba County,” Paskowitz said.
In a letter WMAC vice president Barry Skolnick sent last year to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, the company argues that Recology’s award was procured under “unlawful application” of the City’s “administrative rules,” and threatens legal action. According to Tucker “there were subsequent conversations prior to the release of the RFP, the City’s Department of the Environment made a request to Recology to provide transportation costs that was not asked of WMAC or any other bidder, better positioning them for a winning bid.”
SF Environment deputy director David Assmann, the main driver behind the bidding process, flatly denies this allegation, saying “the process was completely clean, with the City Attorney’s office monitoring the process every step of the way.” According to Assmann, Recology’s bid was selected based on its lowest cost “about $22.73 a ton” and friendlier environmental aspects. Alberti believes that WMAC is unhappy since the contract represents “a lot of money that Waste Management doesn’t want to lose.”
“Their proposal is to use fossil-fueled trains to take the City’s garbage to a landfill that is three times as far as Altamont,” said Tucker. “We have nothing against trains, we use them ourselves, but in this case, rail haul emits three times the greenhouse gases as methane gas-powered trucks that are the most carbon-neutral solution that exists.” Alberti admitted Recology will use diesel trains, but claims that compared to fossil-fueled trucks to Yuba County, they save three times the GHG.
WMAC’s post-bid proposal would use trucks fueled by liquid natural gas (LNG), which it makes from methane, a GHG by-product of decomposing waste at its landfill. According to Alberti, WMAC is playing a “shell game” with regards to assertions that its LNG trucks will result in lower GHG emissions than Recology’s rail proposal. “Their calculations are misleading,” he said. “It really is roughly equal depending on who calculates it. There’s no carbon benefit to Waste Management’s proposal. We’re in the same long-haul air shed. Ours is more environmentally beneficial and low cost,” he said.
Skolnick’s letter points out that an environmental impact review (EIR) has yet to be conducted on Recology’s rail haul option, which may be required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), nor for a rail facility in Oakland, and that Recology doesn’t yet have a permit to build a rail spur to its Ostrom Road landfill. Abe agreed that Recology doesn’t yet have all of its required permits. “Recology’s applications to amend conditional use for its landfill and to build a new rail spur are in process,” he said. Abe expects the board “will receive a report in three to four months,” from a consultant it hired to determine whether a full EIR on Recology’s new contract should be conducted.
“My own personal opinion as a board member, given the strong opposition from Wheatland residents who I represent, and the issues being raised, is that a full EIR is necessary, to review and examine all the concerns and claims now,” he said. “When Recology first received its permit in 1996, the host fee was $4.40 a ton. It hasn’t changed since then. The landfill was only for the Yuba and Sutter communities. Since then, Recology has added surrounding counties. If they bring San Francisco’s waste, it’s clear their intent is to convert it to a regional landfill.
“If you look at the landfill as a local resource, with a limited lifespan and capacity, once it’s full, we’ll have to take our garbage elsewhere. That’s going to increase our costs,” Abe said. “If groundwater contamination or other damage occurs, there’s nothing set up to collect funds to address those types of issues.” According to Abe, “the Recology contract is a ‘cost plus’ contract. Meaning Recology gets to recover its costs plus a percentage. If their costs go up, they’ll pass it on to the ratepayers in San Francisco. It could be more than three times what it is now. Will San Franciscans be OK with that?” Since Recology opened its landfill in the 1980s it’s increased its size from 261 to more than 1,000 acres, takes in 800 tons of waste daily from five counties, and is permitted for 3,000 tons per day by 2030. The landfill rises up in a mountain 100 feet above sea level, and is allowed to go up to 265 feet. “Once the rail spur is in, there’ll be nothing to stop ‘em from bringing unlimited amounts of garbage. We only have a small window of opportunity to do something,” said Paskowitz.
Abe doesn’t think Recology’s proposed permit will be considered by the board until at least 2012. Whether Yuba County gets San Francisco’s garbage or not, “we are working very hard on long-term economic development that would generate more jobs and revenues than the landfill,” Abe said, including an industrial/retail corridor near Highway 65.
Creps recently co-founded SFGreenWaste.org, organizing fellow San Franciscans to gather signatures petitioning for an EIR. “There hasn’t been that, something comparing the two landfill sites,” Creps stated. The group collected more than 1,200 signatures in two days at last year’s Green Festival.
According to Barnes, two crucial issues need to be addressed with Recology before the City approves the proposed landfill contract. “One, the Recology landfill is too close to Wheatland’s water table. I don’t know how it ever came to be sited in the first place,” said Barnes. Second, YuGAG claims that Recology’s “alternative daily cover,” or barrier material that will be placed daily on top of landfill waste, will consist of 25 percent treated sewage sludge, which includes human and pet waste, toxins, carcinogens, harmful chemicals, construction debris such as concrete dust and various other contaminants. Assmann responded with “this is absolutely absurd and illegal. There’s no way sewage sludge would go in the landfill. San Francisco’s sewage is a completely separate waste stream.”
Barnes believes this material should be counted towards Recology’s permitted daily tonnage, and questions whether its use as cover which can blow onto nearby homes and agricultural fields is safe. “Recology is a master at getting permit amendments, going back and getting permits modified for highly questionable reasons,” Barnes said. “We are simply doing whatever we can to fulfill San Francisco’s mission to be the greenest city,” responded Alberti. “To treat San Francisco’s waste stream in the most environmentally responsible way possible, and what can’t be recycled, handled responsibly.”
Three San Francisco supervisors – David Campos, John Avalos and Eric Mar – are on record as having doubts about the contract, which needs Board approval. The Budget Committee has scheduled a February 9 hearing to discuss the proposed contract.
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