Waste not


The San Francisco Board of Supervisors has delayed consideration of a city waste disposal contract while officials investigate a broad range of questions ranging from logistical considerations to whether to break up Recology’s current garbage collection monopoly.

Is it feasible to move the city’s entire infrastructure for waste and recycling to the Port of San Francisco? Would it be more sustainable to barge or rail the city’s trash directly from the port rather than drive it across the Bay Bridge to Oakland every day? Considering that recyclables get shipped from Oakland to Asia anyway, why not send them by barge rather than truck? Or is that idea just an empty gesture since recycles, mostly paper products, consitute only 10 percent of the waste stream?

Some of these questions are being studied as part of a survey the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is trying to complete by April, others as part of a longer-term investigation by the Department of Environment (DoE). At LAFCO’s Feb. 28 meeting, commissioners requested a survey of how other jurisdictions in the Bay Area procure trash collection, hauling, and disposal contracts.

Although the studies differ in scope and duration, both were triggered by a Feb. 3 Budget and Legislative Analyst (BLA) report that revealed that the annual cost to ratepayers of San Francisco’s waste system is $206 million. Yet only the $11 million landfill contract is being put out to competitive bid (see “Garbage Curveball,” 02/08/11).

The BLA report revealed that a 1932 ordinance intended to address territorial disputes around trash collection and transportation in San Francisco ultimately gave Recology (formerly NorCal Waste) a monopoly on all post-collection recycling, consolidation, composting, long-distance transport to landfills, and waste disposal contracts. The report triggered a political firestorm by recommending that the city replace existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that would require competitive bidding on all waste contracts and that rates for residential and commercial trash collection become subject to Board of Supervisors approval.

Faced with these recommendations, the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee asked Feb. 9 for a two-month delay on DoE’s proposal to award Recology a 10-year contract to dispose of San Francisco’s municipal solid waste at Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill Yuba County when its contract at Waste Management’s Altamont landfill expires.

DoE officials predict the WM contract will expire in 2015. But company representatives estimate the contract will last much longer, based on reduced volumes that San Francisco has been trucking to Altamont.

Sup. John Avalos, a LAFCO commissioner, requested that the LAFCO study include a map to give folks “a visual” of landfill locations throughout the greater Bay Area. “And there’s been an interesting discussion about the use of barging,” Avalos said, pointing to the flotilla of barges involved in building the Bay Bridge, which could be repurposed when that jobs ends. “A new maritime use could help the port raise revenue and reinvigorate other maritime uses on its property.”

At that point in the hearing, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, the vice chairman of LAFCO, floated his “alternative barge plan,” under which only recyclables would get sent across the Bay to Oakland. Noting that he has met with Port Director Monique Moyer and Office of Economic and Workforce Development staff, Mirkarimi said that “the port is not equipped to deal with solid waste. But it is equipped to deal with recyclables, so this is something we should pursue.”

But Sup. David Campos, the chairman of LAFCO, clarified that the survey should still include a study of barging all trash. “Barging is complicated, but this is about providing basic information,” he said.

Records show the port reached out to DoE in 2009 with a letter that identified rail (but not barging) as an environmentally sustainable mode for moving waste from the city to its next landfill site.

In a June 23, 2009 letter to the DoE, Moyer and David Gavrich, president and CEO of the SF Bay Railroad (SFBR), stated that “rail directly from the port can not only minimize environmental impacts, it can provide an anchor of rail business for the port and a key economic development engine for the Bayview-Hunters Point community and the city as a whole.”

Recology’s trucks currently collect and haul about half the city’s waste to its recycling center, which sits on port-owned land at Pier 96. After the recyclables are offloaded for processing, the trucks haul the rest of the garbage through the Bayview and back onto the freeway to Brisbane, where it is loaded onto bigger trucks that haul the trash over the Bay Bridge each night to WM’s Altamont landfill near Livermore.

“It would seem most efficient to not double- or triple-handle the waste but to put it directly onto rail at the port instead,” Moyer and Gavrich wrote in 2009. “Collection vehicles could then go directly back out onto their routes, reducing time, fuel, emissions, and traffic impacts.”

The pair noted that SFBR and its affiliate Waste Solutions Group have used rail to haul more than 2 million tons of waste directly from the port in the past 15 years, using gondolas and 12-foot high municipal solid waste (MSW) containers on flat cars. They included an aerial photo showing Recology’s central recycling facility at Pier 96 and the extensive rail infrastructure and barge options that surround the facility.

But DoE never got back to them, Gavrich recalled last week as he fired up a SFBR locomotive and rode the rail tracks that crisscross the 20-acre port-owned facility that lies between SFBR’s outfit, Recology’s Pier 96 recycling facility, and the bay that is currently home to idle barges and rail cars that sit rusting a stone’s throw from the economically depressed Bayview.

“All that’s needed is two to four acres for an excellent transfer station,” Gavrich said. “Barge and rail access could not be better. It’s just waiting to be developed.”

In February, DoE officials told the Budget & Finance Committee that they had looked into and rejected barging as an option. But it turns out they did not conduct an official study. “There hasn’t been a study to date,” DoE’s Assmann said March 7, when the Guardian requested DoE’s barging report. “We had a discussion about it, but no formal policy.”

Assmann noted that DoE asked waste management companies that bid on the city’s landfill disposal contract to include a barging option. “But nobody did,” Assmann said, referring to Recology and Waste Management, the two finalists in the city’s landfill disposal contract bid process.

Assmann said DoE is currently doing a long-term study into three transportation and facilities options for waste using port facilities: the first option would involve moving the entire infrastructure for waste and recycling to the port. The second would be to use the port as a transfer facility for garbage, and truck, barge, or rail haul garbage from the port. The third would involve barging recyclables only from Pier 96.

Assmann notes that the majority of infrastructure for the city’s waste system is at Recology’s Tunnel Road facility on the San Francisco-Brisbane border, a situation he claims would make it impossible to design, permit, finance, and build new facilities at the port before 2015.

But Barry Skolnick, WM’s vice president for Bay Area operations, told the Guardian that 2016 is a more realistic estimate of the landfill expiration date. “At the current disposal rate, we do not believe San Francisco will exhaust its disposal volumes under the existing Altamont landfill contract until 2016 at the earliest,” Skolnick said. “There is plenty of time for the Board of Supervisors and LAFCO to explore best practices and options for its collection, recycling, composting, transferring, and residual waste disposal services.”

Skolnick noted that WM discussed extending the Altamont contract at the Budget & Finance Committee hearing and the LAFCO hearing, and is proposing to extend the city’s current contract by several years.

“We are preparing a proposed three-year extension of the disposal agreement for San Francisco’s review this week,” Skolnick said. “The extension would involve a price increase for disposal but less than the disposal rate offered under the proposed Recology rail haul to Ostrom Road in Yuba County. The three-year extension would provide disposal at the Altamont until 2019 or 2020.”

But Assmann noted that Recology, which currently pays the port $1 million a year to lease Pier 96, wants to expand its Brisbane facility on Recology-owned land. “We have offered to analyze [the Brisbane expansion] option,” Assmann said, estimating that a new transfer facility would cost $40 to $60 million, while a new integrated facility would cost $200 to $450 million.

“If the infrastructure moved to the port, that would have big positive implications for the port,” Assmann said, acknowledging that the port would lose money if Recology relocates entirely to Brisbane. Plus, Brisbane might demand fees from a new facility, he noted. “But consolidation would save ratepayers money in the long run because the operation would become more efficient.”

Unlike the LAFCO study, DoE won’t have its report ready by April, when the city needs to decide on the landfill contract.

“Our proposal is to look at the bigger picture,” Assmann said. “If the board approves Recology’s landfill contract, we’ll still go ahead and do it. The board can always delay its landfill decision. But this looks at infrastructure the landfill agreement won’t impact.”

DoE recommends working with Recology to implement a pilot program to barge recyclables from Pier 96 to the Port of Oakland as it studies long term infrastructure options including locating infrastructure at the port, Assmann said. DoE also recommends that the proposed plan to award Recology the landfill contract and facilitation agreement remain the same “since our analysis shows (and the port concurs) that all options for utilizing the port for any kind of landfill transportation would require a permitting process that would last a minimum of five years and a total timeline of at least seven to nine years.”

So far, the landfill contract has not come before the full board because of delays and continuations at the Budget & Finance Committee. As Judson True, legislative aide to Board President David Chiu, recently observed, the process over the last few months has raised more questions than answers, including unexpected angles such as how the port can be better utilized and the implications of the 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance. “We need to get these answers before we can move forward,” True said. “We all have a lot of work to do before we can figure out what’s best for the city and pick a path.”

But Gavrich hopes history doesn’t repeat itself and that Chiu shows some leadership on the garbage contract hornet’s nest. “There are so many compelling reasons and benefits for the city — but that hasn’t stopped the city from doing the wrong thing in the past,” Gavrich said. Gavrich pointed to 2007, when all members of the board except Sup. Chris Daly voted to give the sewage sludge contract to Recology even though its bid was $3 million higher than the competitor, S&S Trucking.

A Dec. 14 2007 San Francisco Chronicle article by Robert Selna quoted Mirkarimi as saying that a key reason for awarding the contract to Recology was that it was a union company. “That’s the elephant in the room,” Mirkarimi said, framing the board’s decision to go with Recology as being about “the devil we know.” Selna recently left the Chronicle to work as Mirkarimi’s legislative aide.

Mirkarimi’s recent suggestion that LAFCO explore barging recyclables as a pilot program has Gavrich worried. “Saying let’s explore simply barging recyclables makes no sense. It’s a fraction of what makes barge/rail haul economically viable.” Gavrich said. “It would put a greater burden on the ratepayer than the economic and environmentally inefficient system they have in place at Pier 96. The port should get the deal. It would be a cash cow.”