Trash talk

Pub date December 28, 2010
WriterSarah Phelan

The fate of the city’s mountains of garbage — 1,400 tons a day — will be decided some time in the next few months. Maybe.

Two competing proposals for hauling away the trash have been up for consideration since last spring. But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors still doesn’t seem to know which alternative is better, and the board still hasn’t scheduled a hearing on the issue.

Waste Management Inc. has the current contract and trucks waste to the Altamont landfill. Recology now wants to ship the garbage by rail three times as far away, to the company’s Ostrom Road landfill in Yuba County (“A Tale of Two Landfills,” 06/15/10).

David Assmann, deputy director of San Francisco’s Department of the Environment told the Guardian that his department asked for a hearing in October on its proposal to award the contract to Recology when the city’s contract at Altamont landfill expires in 2015.

“But that hearing request got delayed,” Assmann said. “With a new board, new committees, and maybe new chairs of committees coming in January, I’m not sure when the hearing will take place,” he added. “But I’d be surprised if it’s before Jan. 15.”

Sup. David Campos told the Guardian he still has many questions about the contract. “I don’t know if it’s the correct way to go at this point,” he said. “I’m trying to figure it out.”

That sentiment seems to be shared by Sups. John Avalos and Eric Mar, who took a road trip earlier this year to see both landfills. And some local waste management experts have suggested that Recology’s plan would be greener if the city barged its trash to Oakland, then loaded it onto trains, instead of driving it across the Bay Bridge.

Assmann acknowledged that the barging question keeps coming up, but said would be cost prohibitive since trash would have to be loaded and unloaded both sides of the bay. “It would be horrendously expensive, so it’s not a likely option unless folks want their rates to go up dramatically.”

And now Yuba County officials are rethinking how much to charge the city to dump it waste in their rural county’s backyard. Yuba County Supervisor Roger Abe told the Guardian his board has asked the county administrator to look into the process for raising disposal fees at Ostrom Road.

“We’re supposed to receive a report on that, plus parameters on what you can change,” Abe said, noting that fees at Ostrom Road were set at $4.40 per ton in 1996. “So it’s a 14-year-old fee. Clearly, the cost of living is a lot higher now. And when the landfill was established, it was only serving Yuba County. But now it’s being touted as a regional landfill, an approach that is depleting our county’s ability to dispose of its own trash. So if people outside the county are using our landfill, they should be paying more.”

But Assmann doesn’t think the rate hikes would torpedo the city’s plan. “Whichever one of the two landfills is chosen can always opt to raise fees. But that would also impact the fees of local residents, so it’s a self-inhibiting factor,” he said.

“And who knows the implications of Prop. 26 on this,” he continued, referring to the statewide proposition voters approved in November that requires a two-thirds supermajority vote in the state Legislature and at the ballot box in local communities to pass fees, levies, charges, and tax revenue allocations that previously could be enacted with a simple majority vote.

“But even if the fees double in Yuba County, they’ll still be less expensive that at Altamont,” he said. “So our recommendation is to go forward with the Ostrom Road landfill proposal.”

Abe agreed that Prop. 26 could have an impact on the fee-raising process. “But I find it difficult to believe that Yuba County would have a problem raising fees on out of town garbage,” he said. “If I had a choice, I’d say no to Recology. But if it’s coming anyway, I know that $4.40 per ton is not going to be sufficient compensation — and this county is desperate for funds.”

DoE director Melanie Nutter has claimed the Recology contract is environmentally friendlier and could save ratepayers $125 million over the life of the contract. “This is a good deal for San Francisco and for the environment,” Nutter stated when DoE was pushing for a board hearing in October. “Ostrom Road is a state-of-the-art facility that employs industry best practices, and the price is dramatically lower than the competition. This will help us maintain reasonable refuse collection costs as we move toward zero waste.”

The landfill disposal contract is for 5 million tons or 10 years, whichever comes first. DoE predicts that this amount will decrease in the coming years because of prior success in waste prevention, recycling, and composting programs. San Francisco already recycles 77 percent of its waste stream, the highest diversion rate of any city nationwide.

But Abe notes that Waste Management proposes to use methane generated from trash disposed at its Altamont landfill to power its liquid natural gas trucks. “I can’t see how using trains would be greener,” he said.

Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti has told the Guardian that Recology’s waste disposal contract was environmentally superior, in part because San Francisco has mandatory composting legislation that reduces the amount of decomposing organics, a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, being sent to landfills. But Irene Creps, who has homes in San Francisco and Yuba County, pointed out that not all municipalities disposing trash at Ostrom Road have mandatory composting laws, which means the landfill will continue to generate methane. “A lot of places around here only have a black bin,” Creps said.

Meanwhile, Waste Management has threatened legal action if San Francisco awards the contract to Recology, alleging that Recology’s bid was procured under flawed and potentially unlawful application of administrative rules. In a Nov. 9, 2010 letter, WM’s Bay Area Vice President Barry Skolnick urged San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors to “reject the award to Recology and avoid entering into a high-priced 10-year contract that is not even necessary until 2015, at the earliest, and to apply the procurement process to all qualified bidders fairly and consistently, as the law requires.”

The local trash controversy continues as a grassroots movement to stop Recology from expanding at the Jungo Road Landfill in Humboldt County, Nev., won an interim round. At a Dec. 20 meeting, Humboldt County commissioners voted 4-1 to reject a proposed settlement agreement with Recology that would have allowed the landfill to continue.