Ma’s bill would make it harder to resist big city trash


Assemblymember Fiona Ma has thrown another curve ball at San Francisco’s already hotly contested plan to dispose trash in Yuba County: Ma recently introduced AB 1178 which would authorize a local agency to assess special fees, rather than local cities and counties. Currently, local cities and counties hold the authority to “assess special fees of a reasonable amount on the importation of waste from outside of the county to publicly owned or privately owned facilities.” And that’s exactly what Yuba County has been discussing in face of having San Francisco’s trash buried in its backyard, starting 2015.
Equally importantly, Ma’s bill seeks to prohibit a city, county, or local agency from otherwise restricting or limiting in any way the importation of solid waste into that city or county based on place of origin. And that’s another topic that’s been hotly debated in Yuba County as residents there have come to realize that their local dump will quickly get filled by San Francisco’s big city trash–ultimately forcing Yuba County to export its own trash elsewhere in coming years.The rationale given in Ma’s bill for trying to amend the law to stop local municipalities from being able to restrict waste importation?

“Because ensuring adequate and appropriate capacity for disposal of solid waste is a matter of state and regional concern,” AB 1178 states.

So far there have been no votes on this bill, which was introduced in mid-February, and was referred to the Committee on Natural Resources on March 17, read and amended, then re-referred to the Committee on Natural Resources at the beginning of April.

But lest anyone doubts who is supporting or opposing this bill, an analysis of contributions undertaken by show that
a) supporters outspent the opposition by a ratio of 5:1. ($243,347 v $46, 165).
b) California Refuse Recycling Council, Recology Inc and Waste Connections, which would benefit from the legislation support the bill, and
c) the Sierra Club Solano County, Yuba Group Against Garbage, and Sustainability, Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund.

Maplight’s analysis also reveals that Ma received $5,000 from “interest groups that support” this bill.

And the Sacramento Bee has a detailed account of other municipalities, including Solano County, that stand to be impacted if Ma’s bill, which argues that decisions about how much trash goes where are better made at the state and regional level rather than by individual counties, endures. And the Sac Bee article includes a revealing quote from Ma spokesperson Nick Hardeman: “If every county decides to adopt ordinances that discriminate based on the waste’s (origin), then the system breaks down,” Hardeman said.

All this is coming to a head as the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) is preparing to hold a hearing on its recently commissioned report examining how other municipalities handle their trash collection, consolidation and disposal process compared to San Francisco…The LAFCO hearing will be held at City Hall at 10 a.m. on Monday April 18.

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.”

Meet the new boss


The Guardian hasn’t been invited into City Hall’s Room 200 for a long time. Former Mayor Gavin Newsom, who frequently criticized this newspaper in his public statements, had a tendency to freeze out his critics, adopting a supercilious and vinegary attitude toward any members of the press who questioned his policy decisions. So it was almost surreal when a smiling Mayor Ed Lee cordially welcomed two Guardian reporters into his stately office Feb. 15.

Lee says he plans to open his office to a broader cross-section of the community, a move he described as a way of including those who previously felt left out. Other changes have come, too. He’s replaced Newsom’s press secretary, Tony Winnicker, with Christine Falvey, former communications director at the Department of Public Works (DPW). He’s filled the Mayor’s Office with greenery, including giant tropical plants that exude a calming green aura, in stark contrast to Newsom — whose own Room 200 was sterile and self-aggrandizing, including a portrait of Robert Kennedy, in whose footsteps Newsom repeatedly claimed to walk.

When it comes to policy issues, however, some expect to see little more than business-as-usual in the Mayor’s Office. Democratic Party chair Aaron Peskin, a progressive stalwart, said he sees no substantive changes between the new mayor and his predecessor. “It seems to me that the new administration is carrying forward the policies of the former administration,” Peskin said. “I see no demonstrable change. And that makes sense. Lee was Willie Brown and former Mayor Gavin Newsom’s handpicked successor. So he’s dancing with the guys that brought him in.”

Sup. David Campos, viewed as part of the city’s progressive camp along with Peskin, took a more diplomatic tack. “So far I’ve been very pleased with what I’ve seen,” Campos noted. “I really appreciate that he’s reached out to the community-based organizations and come out to my district and done merchant walks. I think we have to wait to see what he does on specific policy issues.”

But while Lee has already garnered a reputation for being stylistically worlds apart from Newsom, he still hews close to his predecessor’s policies in some key areas. In our interview, Lee expressed an unwillingness to consider tax-revenue measures for now, but said he was willing to take condo conversions into consideration as a way to bring in cash. He was unenthusiastic about community choice aggregation and dismissive of replacing Pacific Gas & Electric Co. with a public-power system. He hasn’t committed to overturning the pending eviction of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council’s recycling center, and he continued to argue for expanding Recology’s monopoly on the city’s $206 million annual trash stream, despite a recent Budget and Legislative Analyst’ report that recommended putting the issue to the voters.

Public Defender Jeff Adachi, who met Lee in 1980 through the Asian Law Caucus, said Lee would be facing steep challenges. “It’s a fascinating political karmic outcome that he is now our appointed mayor. He didn’t seek it out, as he says, but the opportunity he has now is to focus his efforts on fixing some of the problems that have gone unaddressed for decades, pension reform being one of them. I think he realizes he has a limited time to achieve things of value. The question I and others have is, can he do it?”



Lee identified as a non-politician, patently rejecting the notion that he would enter the race for mayor. In meetings with members of the Board of Supervisors at the end of 2010, he said he didn’t want the job.

Yet while vacationing in Hong Kong, Lee became the subject of a full-court press. “When the lobbying and phone calls started … clearly they meant a lot to me,” Lee told us, adding that the choice “was very heavy on my mind.” He finally relented, accepting the city’s top post.

Although rumors had been circulating that Lee might seek a full term, he told the Guardian he’s serious about serving as a caretaker mayor. “If I’m going to thrust all my energy into this, I don’t need to have to deal with … a campaign to run for mayor.”

Adachi offered an interesting take on Lee as caretaker: “Somewhere along the way, [Lee] became known as the go-to guy in government who could take care of problems,” Adachi said, “like the Wolf in Pulp Fiction.”

Sounding rather unlike Harvey Keitel’s tough-talking character, Lee noted, “One of my goals is to rebuild the trust between the Mayor’s Office and the Board of Supervisors. I think I can do that by being consistent with the promises I make.”

Lee’s vows to keep his promises, mend rifts with the board, and stay focused on the job could be interpreted as statements intended to set him apart from Newsom, who was frequently criticized for being disengaged during his runs for higher office, provoking skirmishes with the board, and going back on his word.

The new mayor also said he’d be willing to share his working calendar with the public, something Newsom resisted for years. Kimo Crossman, a sunshine advocate who was part of a group that began submitting requests for Newsom’s calendar in 2006, greeted this news with a wait-and-see attitude. “I’ve already put in a request,” Crossman said. “Politicians are always in support of sunshine — until they have to comply with it.”



Pointing to the tropical elephant-ear plants adorning his office, Lee noted that elephants are considered lucky in Chinese culture. With the monstrous issues of pension reform and a gaping budget deficit hitting his mayoral term like twin tornadoes, it might not hurt to have some extra luck.

Pension reform is emerging as the issue du jour in City Hall. A round of talks on how to turn the tide on rising pension costs has brought labor representatives, Sup. Sean Elsbernd, billionaire Warren Hellman, City Attorney Dennis Herrera, labor leaders, and others to the table as part of a working group.

Gabriel Haaland, who works for SEIU Local 1021, sounded a positive note on Lee. “He’s an extraordinarily knowledgeable guy about government. He seems to have a very collaborative working style and approach to problem-solving, and he is respectful of differing opinions,” Haaland said. “Where is it going to take us? I don’t know yet.”

Lee emphasized his desire to bring many stakeholders together to facilitate agreement. “We’re talking about everything from limiting pensionable salaries, to fixing loopholes, to dealing with what kinds of plans we can afford in the health care arena,” he noted. Lee said the group had hashed out 15 proposals so far, which will be vetted by the Controller’s Office.

A central focus, Lee said, has been “whether we’ve come to a time to recognize that we have to cap pensions.” That could mean capping a pension itself, he said, or limiting how much of an employee’s salary can be counted toward his or her pension.

Since Lee plans to resume his post as city administrator once his mayoral term has ended, he added a personal note: “I want to go back to my old job, do that for five years, and have a pension that is respectable,” he said. “At the same time, I feel others who’ve worked with me deserve a pension. I don’t want it threatened by the instability we’re headed toward and the insolvency we’re headed toward.”



If pension reform is shaping up to be the No. 1 challenge of Lee’s administration, tackling the city budget is a close second. When Newsom left office, he passed Lee a budget memo containing instructions for a 2.5 percent reduction in most city departments, part of an overarching plan to shave 10 percent from all departments plus another 10 percent in contingency cuts, making for a bruising 20 percent.

Lee said his budget strategy is to try to avert what Sup. David Chiu once characterized as “the typical Kabuki-style budget process” that has pitted progressives against the mayor in years past. That means sitting down with stakeholders early.

“I have opened the door of this office to a number of community groups that had expressed a lot of historical frustration in not being able to express to the mayor what they feel the priorities of their communities are,” Lee said. “I’ve done that in conjunction with members of the Board of Supervisors, who also felt that they weren’t involved from the beginning.”

Affordable-housing advocate Calvin Welch said Lee’s style is a dramatic change. “I think he’s probably equaled the total number of people he’s met in six weeks with the number that Newsom met in his seven years as mayor,” Welch said.

Sup. Carmen Chu, recently installed as chair of the Budget & Finance Committee, predicted that the budget will still be hard to balance. “We are still grappling with a $380 million deficit,” Chu told us, noting that there are some positive economic signs ahead, but no reason to expect a dramatic improvement. “We’re been told that there is $14 million in better news. But we still have the state budget to contend with, and who knows what that will look like.”

Sup. John Avalos, the former chair of the Board’s powerful Budget Committee, said he thinks the rubber hasn’t hit the road yet on painful budget decisions that seem inevitable this year — and the outcome, he said, could spell a crashing halt to Ed Lee’s current honeymoon as mayor.

“We are facing incredible challenges,” Avalos said, noting that he heard that labor does not intend to open up its contracts, which were approved in 2010 for a two-year period. And federal stimulus money has run out.



Asked whether he supported new revenue measures as a way to fill the budget gap, Lee initially gave an answer that seemed to echo Newsom’s inflexible no-new-taxes stance. “I’m not ready to look at taxes yet,” he said.

He also invoked an idea that Newsom proposed during the last budget cycle, which progressives bitterly opposed. In a conversation with community-based organizations about “unpopular revenue-generating ideas,” Lee cautioned attendees that “within the category of unpopular revenue-generating ideas are also some that would be very unpopular to you as well.”

Asked to explain, Lee answered: “Could be condo conversion. Could be taxes. I’m not isolating any one of them, but they are in the category of very unpopular revenue-generating ideas, and they have to be carefully thought out before we determine that they would be that seriously weighed.”

Ted Gullicksen, who runs the San Francisco Tenants Union, said tenant advocates have scheduled a meeting with Lee to talk about condo conversions. Thanks to Prop. 26’s passage in November 2010, he said, any such proposal would have to be approved by two-thirds of the board or the voters. “It’s pretty clear that any such measure would not move forward without support from all sides,” Gullicksen said. “If anyone opposes it, it’s going to go nowhere.”

Gullicksen said he’d heard that Lee is willing to look at the possibility of significant concessions to renter groups in an effort to broker a condo conversion deal, such as a moratorium on future condo conversions. “If, for example, 1,000 TICs [tenants-in-common] became condos under the proposal, then we’d need a moratorium for five years to minimize and mitigate the damages,” Gullicksen explained.

More important, some structural reform of TIC conversions may be on the table, Gullicksen said. “And that would be more important than keeping existing TICs from becoming condos.”

Gullicksen acknowledged that Lee has the decency to talk to all the stakeholders. “Newsom never attempted to talk to tenants advocates,” he said.



Lee’s two children are in their early 20s, and the mayor said he takes seriously the goal of being proactive on environmental issues in order to leave them with a more sustainable San Francisco. He trumpeted the city’s green achievements, saying, “We’re now on the cutting edge of environmental goals for the city.”

Leading bicycle activist Leah Shahum of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition had praise for Lee on bike issues. “I’m really encouraged by his very public support of the new green separate bikeways on Market Street and his interest and commitment to creating more,” she said. “I believe Mayor Lee sees the value of connecting the city with cross town bicycle lanes, which serve a wide range of folks, including business people and families.”

Yet some proponents of green causes are feeling uncertain about whether their projects will advance under Lee’s watch.

On the issue of community choice aggregation (CCA), the ambitious green-energy program that would transfer Pacific Gas & Electric Co. customers to a city-run program with a cleaner energy mix, Lee — who helped determine rates as city administrator — seemed lukewarm. “I know Mr. [Ed] Harrington and his staff just want to make sure it’s done right,” he said, referring to the general manager of the city’s Public Utilities Commission, whose tepid attitude toward the program has frequently driven him to lock horns with the city’s chief CCA proponent, Sup. Ross Mirkarimi.

Lee noted that CCA program goals were recently scaled back. He also said pretty directly that he opposes public power: “We’re not in any day getting rid of PG&E at all. I don’t think that is the right approach.”

The controversial issue of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council Recycling Center’s pending eviction from Golden Gate Park still hangs in the balance. The Recreation and Park Commission, at Newsom’s behest, approved the eviction despite overwhelming community opposition.

Lee said he hadn’t looked at the issue closely. “I do know that there’s a lot of strong debate around the viability, what that operation attracts and doesn’t attract,” he said. “I had the owner of HANC here along with a good friend, Calvin Welch, who made a plea that I think about it a bit. I agreed that I would sit down and talk with what I believe to be the two experts involved in that decision: Melanie Nutter at the Department of the Environment and then Phil Ginsburg at the Rec and Park.” Nutter and Ginsburg supported HANC’s eviction.

Welch, who is on the board of HANC, noted that Lee could be swayed by his staff. “The bunch around Newsom had old and bad habits, and old and bad policies. In dealing with mayors over the years, I know how dependent they are on their staff. They’re in a bubble, and the only way out is through a good staff. Otherwise, Lee will come to the same conclusions as Newsom.”

HANC’s Jim Rhoads told the Guardian he isn’t feeling reassured. “He said he would keep asking people about it. Unfortunately, if he asked his own staff, it would be a problem because they’re leftovers from Newsom.”

Speaking of leftovers, Lee also weighed in on the debate about the city’s waste-management contract — and threw his support behind the existing private garbage monopoly. Campos is challenging a perpetual waste-hauling contract that Recology has had with the city since 1932, calling instead for a competitive-bidding process. When the Department of the Environment recommended awarding the city’s landfill disposal contract to Recology last year, it effectively endorsed a monopoly for the company over managing the city’s entire waste stream, at an estimated value of $206 million per year.

The final decision to award the contract was delayed for two months at a February Budget & Finance Committee hearing. Campos is contemplating putting the issue to the voters this fall, provided he can find six votes on the Board.

“I know that Sup. Campos had given his policy argument for why he wants that revisited,” Lee said. “I have let him know that the Recology company in its various forms has been our very dependable garbage-hauling company for many, many decades. … I feel that the company has justified its privilege to be the permit holder in San Francisco because of the things that it has been willing to do with us. Whether or not we want to use our time today to revisit the 1932 ordinance, for me that wouldn’t be a high priority.”



In the last week of 2010, Avalos pushed through groundbreaking local-hire legislation, without the support of then Mayor Gavin Newsom or his chief of staff, Steve Kawa, who wanted Avalos to back off and let Newsom takeover the task.

With Lee now in Room 200, things appear to be moving forward on local hire, in face of misleading attacks from Assemblymember Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), who wants to make sure no state money is used on local-hire projects, presumably because the building trades are upset by it. And Kawa, whom Lee has retained as chief of staff, doesn’t really support the legislation. Indeed, Kawa’s presence in the Mayor’s Office has his detractors believing that the new boss in Room 200 is really the same as the old boss.

“I feel like things are moving forward in the right direction around local hire, though a little more quietly than I’d like,” Avalos told the Guardian. Avalos noted that he is going to hold a hearing in March on implementing the legislation that should kick in March 25.

Welch said he believes that if Lee starts replacing staff wholesale, it could indicate two things: he’s a savvy guy who understands the difficulties of relying on Newsom’s chief of staff Steve Kawa for a budget, and he’s not ruling out a run for mayor.

“If I was in his position, the first thing out of my mouth would be, ‘I’m not running.’ I think he’s very focused in the budget. And it’s going to make or break him. But if he starts overriding Kawa and picks staff who represent him … well, then I’d revisit the question of whether he’s contemplating a run for mayor, say, around June.”

A jaundiced proposal


An ordinance to ban unsolicited print Yellow Pages across San Francisco, proposed Feb. 1 by Board of Supervisors President David Chiu, seeks to reduce waste and save money.

“Phone books are a 20th-century tool that doesn’t meet the business and environmental needs of the 21st century,” Chiu said as he introduced the measure in board chambers.

The ordinance would establish a three-year pilot program starting Oct. 1 in which the city would reduce the mass distribution of phone books, making them available only at distribution centers or to residents or businesses that request them.

A rally in support of the ban before the meeting included Rainforest Action Network’s founder Randall Hayes and California Sen. Leland Yee (D-San Mateo), who proposed legislation that failed to gain steam last year for making it easier for Californians to opt out of receiving phone books.

But the Yellow Pages Association refuses to be thrown out with the rest of yesterday’s trash. YPA Vice President of Public Policy and Sustainability Amy Healy said her group opposes the proposal but that she was encouraged that Chiu and his staff say they are open to working with the association.



Chiu introduced the ordinance, which is cosponsored by Sup. Scott Wiener, because of the potential effect it could have on reducing city waste, both in the city’s garbage bins and its treasury.

According to Chiu’s office, San Francisco receives about 1.5 million phone books a year. At an average weight of 4.33 pounds per book, the current distribution system creates about 7 million pounds of waste. If the production were cut in half for the city, it would save nearly 6,180 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year from polluting the air.

But it isn’t just the environmental cost that is wearing on the city.

Phone books are tough to recycle. With plastic inserts, bulky design, and low-grade paper, the books have to be presorted and recycled manually. It costs Recology, the company contracted with the city for waste disposal, $300 per ton to dispose of the city’s unused phone books, which in turn costs taxpayers about $1 million a year for their disposal.



The YPA has been sensitive to the environmental concerns, recently launching a website that allows a person to opt out of receiving a phone book.

But it is also suing the Seattle City Council over its Feb. 1 approval of a plan to charge Yellow Pages a 14-cent publisher’s fee per book and create an opt out system for the city, arguing the Seattle ordinance violates the First Amendment’s free speech protections.

According to a statement by YPA President Neg Norton, the association believes that “if don’t want a phone book, you shouldn’t have to get one.”

But YPA opposes the ban on unsolicited books, citing the jobs it would cost, the business community’s desire to “generate leads and revenue from ready-to-buy consumers,” and claiming the First Amendment “prohibits government from licensing or exercising advance approval of the press and from directing publishers what to publish and to whom they may communicate.”

Wiener has a different take on the matter, a stand he said he has already received lots of criticism for, including from some constituents who compared it to the board vote to ban Happy Meals last year. But he said this issue is very different.

“An enormous number of books dumped all over the city is a bad thing, and we should do something to address the issue,” he told the Guardian, noting that the ability to opt out isn’t good enough. “It’s not like the do-not-call list where it is directly annoying and people are more likely to take action … Stacks sit in apartment lobbies, and people don’t decide to opt-out.”

But YPA is also citing the public’s apathy as a reason the ban is unfair. “People don’t take the time to respond to e-mails,” Healy said. “It’s an unreasonable barrier to have a stranger knock on your door and ask you to take something.” The YPA claims that “seven in 10 adults in California use print Yellow Pages, so we do not believe a system that puts a burden on the majority of people to opt in is the best path for choice.”



Do people still value the Yellow Pages?

Healy believes they do, stating that advertising with the Yellow Pages gives businesses a “high return on their investment.” We asked some city businesses that still advertise in the Yellow Pages what they thought about the potential ban.

Barbara Barrish, manager of Barrish Bail Bonds, doesn’t see her customers using the Yellow Pages anymore. “We used to swear by the Yellow Pages. Now young people use the computers, or their Blackberries and phones.”

Although she has an ad in the print edition, Barrish said she wouldn’t advertise with the directory again and only did so this time because it slashed its prices. “It used to cost a lot more, but it cut its advertising costs by a third,” she said. “They gave me a good deal.”

When asked if she would request a copy if the ban goes through, she said she probably would. “I might grab a phone book if the computer is down.”

Daniel Richardson, an immigration attorney who advertised in the Yellow Pages until 2008, predicted the business community would kill or water down the ordinance. “You are talking about going up against AT&T and other major businesses,” he told the Guardian with a chuckle.

Richardson said he stopped advertising in the Yellow Pages because he didn’t get enough business. He believes people look to the Yellow Pages for criminal or personal injury lawyers, but not immigration attorneys.

Even pizza places, a staple of advertising in the Yellow Pages, are ho-hum about the usefulness of the Yellow Pages. Junior Reyes, who is in charge of advertising for Go Getter Pizza on Gough Street, believes the restaurant gets most of its customers from online. “We do a lot of advertising with other places and online,” he said. “The Yellow Pages isn’t our main source.”

But what about people who do use the Yellow Pages, particularly groups that are not big Internet users. Would they miss it?

David Bolt is the dean for academic affairs at Expression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville and producer of the PBS series The Digital Divide. He believes that banning the Yellow Pages may be a problem for certain groups, including the elderly, recent immigrants, and the poor — groups with the least access to Internet, particularly in urban centers.

“We should err on the side of giving as much information to the greatest numbers of people, especially to groups that may not be technologically literate,” he said. “Society should think about how groups could be impacted by this decision.”

But Barbara Blong, executive director of the Senior Action Network, said older people are becoming more tech savvy. She said computer classes and other resources have put many of the city’s seniors online. She questioned the concept that seniors are one of the largest groups affected by the digital divide, noting that seniors oppose wastefulness as much as anyone.

“We are against having a lot of Yellow Pages laying around,” she said. Blong also mentioned that seniors who do not use the Internet for contacts can use the public library or senior centers that have phone books on hand. “I don’t see it as a ban, but moving on so we don’t have a great deal of waste,” she said.

The ordinance also exempts foreign language phone directories, further diluting the divide argument. The legislation wouldn’t ban the Chinese Yellow Pages or Momento (Spanish Yellow Pages) because they are distributed through community centers, not residences.

The ordinance is expected to have its first public hearing around the end of the month. The YPA will continue to tout its opt out website to the board in hopes it might be enough to persuade the city to forgo the opt in system. The group also hasn’t ruled out a lawsuit.

But YPA’s Healy said he hopes the coming dialogue will be productive. “We share the same goal — we don’t want to print directories that are unwanted.”

A better option for trash


EDITORIAL One of the biggest, most important municipal contracts in San Francisco is never put out to bid. It’s awarded to the same company, automatically, and has been since 1932. Recology Inc. (formerly known as Sunset Scavenger, Envirocal, and Norcal Solid Waste Systems) is the only outfit licensed to pick up trash in the city. It’s also the only company that has a monopoly guaranteed in the City Charter. Its residential rates are set every five years by an agency almost nobody’s ever heard of, the Refuse Collection and Disposal Rate Board, which consists of the city administrator, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Commercial rates are set by Recology alone; there’s no appeal or oversight.

San Francisco is the only major city in the United States that contracts out solid waste collection to a private company. And it may be the only city of any size that does it without competitive bidding.

Now that city officials are discussing where the garbage should go — that is, what landfill should hold it — there’s a perfect opportunity to open up the 1932 deal, amend the charter, and fix this.

Sups. David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi are working on a measure that would mandate competitive bidding for the contract to pick up commercial and residential trash. “It’s not in the interest of the ratepayers to have a monopoly,” Campos told us.

It’s true that Recology has worked with the city on reducing the waste stream and developing a curbside compost and recycling plan. And Recology is an employee-owned company.

But that doesn’t mean the city or its residents and businesses are getting the best possible deal. Could another company do the same job better — and for less? Maybe. Would the prospect of a competitive bid drive Recology to improve service and cut rates? Absolutely. That why most municipal contracts are put out to bid on a regular basis.

But there’s a larger question here, one that the supervisors also should consider. Why does San Francisco have private garbage collection anyway? All over the country, cities handle that task as a part of the function of government.

There are several distinct advantages to evaluating a public option for refuse. For starters, the city is in desperate need of money — and Recology is making a nice profit off its local gig. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the city could take over garbage collection, keep the rates at the same level, and bring in millions to the general fund. It’s also possible that city officials would decide to forego some of that income and cut rates to make life easier for residents and businesses.

Since the 1932 charter provision is getting a new look anyway, the supervisors at least ought to look at the possibility of ending private garbage collection. A fairly basic study should be able to establish how much revenue Recology takes in, what expenses are involved, and whether it’s worth pursuing municipalization.

Editorial: Better options for garbage


One of the biggest, most important municipal contracts in San Francisco is never put out to bid. It’s awarded to the same company, automatically, and has been since 1932. Recology Inc. (formerly known as Sunset Scavenger, Envirocal, and Norcal Solid Waste Systems) is the only outfit licensed to pick up trash in the city. It’s also the only company that has a monopoly guaranteed in the City Charter.

Its residential rates are set every five years by an agency almost nobody’s ever heard of, the Refuse Collection and Disposal Rate Board, which consists of the city administrator, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. Commercial rates are set by Recology alone; there’s no appeal or oversight.

San Francisco is the only major city in the United States that contracts out solid waste collection to a private company. And it may be the only city of any size that does it without competitive bidding.

Now that city officials are discussing where the garbage should go — that is, what landfill should hold it — there’s a perfect opportunity to open up the 1932 deal, amend the charter, and fix this.

Sups. David Campos and Ross Mirkarimi are working on a measure that would mandate competitive bidding for the contract to pick up commercial and residential trash. “It’s not in the interest of the ratepayers to have a monopoly,” Campos told us.

It’s true that Recology has worked with the city on reducing the waste stream and developing a curbside compost and recycling plan. And Recology is an employee-owned company.

But that doesn’t mean the city or its residents and businesses are getting the best possible deal. Could another company do the same job better — and for less? Maybe. Would the prospect of a competitive bid drive Recology to improve service and cut rates? Absolutely. That why most municipal contracts are put out to bid on a regular basis.

But there’s a larger question here, one that the supervisors also should consider. Why does San Francisco have private garbage collection anyway? All over the country, cities handle that task as a part of the function of government.

There are several distinct advantages to evaluating a public option for refuse. For starters, the city is in desperate need of money — and Recology is making a nice profit off its local gig. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that the city could take over garbage collection, keep the rates at the same level, and bring in millions to the general fund. It’s also possible that city officials would decide to forego some of that income and cut rates to make life easier for residents and businesses.

Since the 1932 charter provision is getting a new look anyway, the supervisors at least ought to look at the possibility of ending private garbage collection. A fairly basic study should be able to establish how much revenue Recology takes in, what expenses are involved, and whether it’s worth pursuing municipalization.


Garbage curveball


A newly released report from the Budget and Legislative Analyst has thrown a curve ball at the Department of the Environment’s proposal to transport the city’s garbage by truck and rail to Yuba County for disposal in Recology’s Ostrom Road landfill.

Recology’s proposal would kick in when the city’s disposal contract with Waste Management’s Altamont landfill reaches its 15 million ton limit, which is anticipated to occur in 2015, or beyond (see “A tale of two landfills,” 06/15/10). But as that much-anticipated proposal finally comes to a Board of Supervisors committee on Feb. 9, the debate has suddenly been significantly broadened.

The Budget and Legislative Analyst’s report recommends replacing existing trash collection and disposal laws with legislation that requires competitive bidding on all aspects of the city’s waste collection, transportation, and disposal system. It also recommends that the Board of Supervisors require that refuse collection rates for both residential and commercial services be subject to board approval, and that competitive bidding could result in reduced refuse collection rates in San Francisco.

The annual cost to ratepayers of the city’s entire refuse system is $206 million, but only the landfill disposal contract, worth $11.2 million a year, gets put out to competitive bid, the BLA observes.

Debra Newman, an analyst with he BLA, told the Guardian that she has been asked why she brought up all these issues in advance of the Board’s Feb. 9 Budget and Finance committee hearing to discuss the Department of Environment’s recommendation that Recology be awarded the disposal contract. The company already has a monopoly over collection and transportation of waste in San Francisco thanks to an 79-year-old voter-approved agreement.

“Our position is that this is the only opportunity to address these issues with the board because of the way the city’s 1932 refuse collection and disposal ordinance reads,” Newman said. “This is the only vehicle we would have because nothing else is going to come to them. The residential rates don’t come to them, the commercial rates don’t even come to the Rate Board. This is our chance to discuss the whole kit and caboodle of waste collection, transportation, and disposal.”

The BLA’s Feb. 4 report notes that “Unlike water rates charged by the SF Public Utilities Commission, neither residential or collection rates are currently subject to Board approval, under the city’s 1932 refuse ordinance.”

Residential rates are approved by the director of Public Works, unless such rates are appealed, in which case they are subject to the approval of the city’s Rate Board, which consists of the city administrator, the controller and the SF Public Utilities Commission director. Recology sets the commercial rates, which are not subject to city approval.

Voters previously rejected two attempts to allow for competitive bidding for refuse collection and transportation (Prop. Z in 1993 and Prop. K in 1994). And the BLA observes that if the Board doesn’t go to the ballot box, it could ask DoE to analyze costs and benefits of using Recology to collect refuse, and using a separate firm to provide transportation, if that firm can avoid transporting refuse through San Francisco’s streets.

Under the never-ending waste ordinance that the city approved during the Great Depression, 97 permits exist to collect refuse within the city, and only authorized refuse collectors that have these permits may transport refuse “through the streets of the City and County of San Francisco.” Due to a number of corporate acquisitions, Recology now owns all 97 permits and so has a monopoly over refuse collected in and transported through the streets of San Francisco.

But the BLA report was unable to identify any portion of the city’s 1932 refuse ordinance that governs the transport of refuse that does not occur through the city’s streets.

“Therefore, it may be possible for a second firm, other than Recology, to transport refuse after it has been collected by Recology, if that second firm’s transfer station was located either outside the city limits or was located near marine or rail facilities, such that refuse from the transfer station to the city’s designated landfill could avoid being transported through the streets of the city and county of San Francisco,” the BLA states.

“These are nuanced issues and they’ve evolved,” Newman observed. “All we are doing is trying to help the board try and decide what to do on this matter. We are saying that the current approach is a policy matter for the board, and recommending that the board submit a proposal to the voters to amend the refuse collection and disposal ordinance.”

The BLA report comes 15 months after the city tentatively awarded the new landfill disposal agreement to Recology to deposit up to 5 million tons of waste collected in San Francisco in Recology’s landfill in Yuba County for 10 years. The award was based on score sheets from a three-member evaluation panel composed of City Administrator (now Mayor) Ed Lee, DoE Deputy Director David Assmann, and Oakland environmental services director Susan Katchee.

The trio scored competing proposals from Recology and Waste Management, and awarded Recology 254, and WM 240, out of a possible 300 points. Lee’s scores in favor of Recology were disproportionately higher than other panelists, and the BLA notes that the largest differences in the scoring occurred around cost.

The BLA concluded that the city’s proposed agreement with Recology was subject to the city’s normal competitive process, “because the landfill disposal agreement is the sole portion of the refuse collection, transportation and disposal process which is subject to the City’s normal competitive bidding process.” And it found that because the transfer and collection of the city’s refuse has never been subject to the city’s normal bidding process, approval of the proposed resolution is a policy decision for the board.

But while DoE’s Assmann has said that California cities must maintain a plan for 15 years of landfill disposal capacity, the BLA notes that such plans can include executed agreements and anticipated agreements. And WM officials confirm that Altamont has capacity for 30 to 40 years. This means the board need not rush its disposal decision.

The BLA report comes against a backdrop of intense lobbying around Recology’s proposal. Records show that in 2010, Alex Clemens of Barbary Coast Consulting recorded $82,500 from Recology, and Chris Gruwell of Platinum Advisors recorded $70,000 from Waste Management to lobby around the city’s landfill disposal contract.

And now both firms continue to press their case in face of the BLA report.

“Folks are trying to cloud the issue,” Recology’s consultant Adam Alberti, who works for Sam Singer Associates, said. He claims the BLA report concludes that Recology’s proposed contract is the lowest cost to rate payers, saving an estimated $130 million over 10 years, that Recology’s green rail option is the environmentally superior approach, and that the city’s contract procurement process was open, thorough, and fair. “In short, the process works—and it works well,” Alberti said. “The rate setting process is an important subject, and one the board should review, but the one before the board now is a fully vetted contract.”

Alberti claimed that contrary to the conclusions of the BLA, which found commercial collection rates are significantly higher in San Francisco than Oakland, Recology’s rates are cheaper than Oakland—once you factor in Recology’s recycling discounts.

Waste Management’s David Tucker said the BLA report “raises lots of good questions.”

“We have said from day one that transportation was a component of the request for proposals [for the landfill disposal contract] that no other company other than Recology had an option to bid on,” Tucker said. “Had we been able to bid on the transportation component, our costs would have been lower.”

Tucker believes that no matter who wins the landfill contract, the BLA report points to a lack of transparency and openness under the city’s existing refuse ordinance.

“Up until this time, no one has been able to understand the process,” Tucker said. “If the Budget and Legislative Analyst has shown that there are some inconsistencies in the statements made by the Department of the Environment, if the process has slight flaws, then the whole process from the request for proposals to the pricing needs to be revised. And time is on the City’s side. There is no need to rush into a decision. Yes, our contract with the city is ending, but our capacity at the Altamont clearly goes into 2030 and 2040. So, this is an opportunity to toss out [Recology’s] proposal and start again.”

Asked if Recology is planning to rail haul waste to Nevada, once its Ostrom Road Yuba County landfill, Alberti said that the city’s current procurement process prohibits that.

“Will that be around next time? I don’t know,” he said. “Recology’s first goal is reducing waste, and managing it responsibly. We believe rail haul is an integral part of that.”

And he insisted BLA’s report should not be connected to Recology’s disposal contract.

“Recology believes that the system is working very well, as evidenced by the fact that it’s yielded the best diversion rates, lower rates than average, and has an open and thorough rate-setting process set by an independent body,” he said. ” We feel the recommendations are separate from the matter-at-hand. But if the board so chooses to have this debate, we’re anxious and happy to be part of that discussion.”

David Gavrich, CEO of Waste Solutions Group, which transports waste by rail and barge from San Francisco, praised the BLA report for “finally peeling back the layers of the onion” on the city’s entire waste system. Gavrich notes that in June 2009, he and Port Director Monique Moyer advised DoE of an option on a piece of long-vacant port property that offers direct rail and barge transportation of waste and could result in tremendous long-term savings to ratepayers.

“But we never got a reply to our letter,” Gavrich said. “Instead, DoE pushed forward with Recology’s trucking of waste to the East Bay, the transloading of waste from truck to railcar in the East Bay, and the railing of waste east to Yuba County.”

Sup. Ross Mirkarimi, which sits on the Board’s Budget and Finance Committee, is concerned that the city is considering enlarging Recology’s monopoly, without calling into question the reform of the 1932 charter.

“I don’t think these two questions should be disconnected in the way they are in the proposal to award Recology the landfill disposal contract,” Mirkarimi said. “The city and the DOE are very defensive about this and have a well laid-out defense to show that they followed the letter of the law in awarding this contract. But that leads to a secondary set of concerns: namely are we getting the best bang for our bucks, and is there something less than competitive about the current process.”

Mirkarimi admits that Recology has been committed to many of the city’s environmental policy advances. “But that’s aside from the larger question of what this mean in terms of institutionalizing further the expansion of a monopoly,” he said. “Our utilities are governed by monopolies like PG&E. So, should we be going in the same direction as 1932, or thinking if we want to diversify our utility portfolio?”

Trash talk


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.

EDITORIAL: Save the HANC recycling center


The foes of the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council recycling center — including the mayor and Rec-Park Director Phil Ginsberg, who desperately want to get the low-income riff-raff who sell cans and bottles for a living out of the Haight and Inner Sunset — pulled out all the stops Dec 2, dragging good ol’ Chuck Nevius, who’s always ready to stand up for what isw clean and well-manicured and free of urban grit, into the fight. The Nevius column in the Chron is almost too perfect; he describes the center as “a noisy, ugly industrial plant” that doesn’t belong in Golden Gate Park. Well, the center is technically in the park, I suppose, but it’s not exactly smack amid Speedway Meadow or the Arboretum; it’s way off on the edge, in an area that most people don’t even think of as the park.

But see, here’s the real issue:

It is a magnet for the down and out, some of whom use the can and bottle payout as an ATM for booze and drugs, and even raid the neighborhood bins to fill their carts.

Imagine: A magnet for the “down and out” in the Haight. Imagine: A way for people to make some money without panhandling (which Nevius dislikes) or hassling tourists (which Nevius dislikes) or selling drugs (which Nevius dislikes) or stealing (which all of us dislike). Imagine: A community-run institution that actually creates green jobs for people who might otherwise be homeless (and doing things that Chuck Nevius dislikes).

The real issue is that the mayor never liked HANC (since he lives in the Haight, he ought to stop by a HANC meeting sometime; it’s really not that scary) and doesn’t like the idea of homeless people congregating around the recycling center, and would just as soon get rid of anything that doesn’t fit his vision of a squeaky clean, fully gentrified city.

And it’s not as if Ginsberg wants to restore that corner of the park to native flora; it will be, in his vision, a community gardening center. Nice, but not exactly a natural space. The new center would also attract small crowds — but of a very different demographic. Which, again, is what this is all about.

The HANC recycling center does everything that Gavin Newsom claims to support. It provides green jobs. It offers employment opportunities for people who are on the margins of society, and lets them get back on their feet — without a penny of taxpayer money. It promotes recycling and sound urban ecology.

The private company that collects our garbage and recycling, which is called Recology, doesn’t like the fact that poor people go around and collect cans and bottles from the blue bins on the sidewalk; the stuff is worth money, and the company would rather keep it. But in the end, the material goes to the same place and stays out of the landfills, which ought to be the point. And honestly, isn’t scavenging and recycling cans and bottles a better occupation than agressive panhandling and crime?

The center’s a bargain for San Francisco, and the personal peeves and suburban sensibilities of Newsom, Ginsberg and Nevius shouldn’t shut it down. The Recreation and Parks Commission should direct Ginsberg to back off on eviction proceedings and let the center stay.



Newsom campaign also plugging Sparks



Gavin Newsom’s campaign for lieutenant governor might have a tough time beating moderate Latino Republican Abel Maldonado – indeed, even many of his local allies privately tell us they fear he’s going to lose – but it is still using some of its significant resources and energy to promote the candidacy of Theresa Sparks, whom Newsom endorsed to replace Chris Daly on the Board of Supervisors.

“I’m hoping we can count on your vote for Gavin Newsom for lieutenant governor and Theresa Sparks for District 6 supervisor,” a volunteer with the Newsom campaign said during a call that I received today, the first I’ve gotten from the Newsom campaign.

As of Sept. 23, the Sparks campaign reported having $29,361 in the bank, about half of what her main District 6 rival Debra Walker had on hand on that date ($57,895), even though Sparks has out-fundraised Walker $124,000 to $110,000, according to the most recent campaign finance reports.

Yet even these strong local fundraising totals pale in comparison to what a statewide candidate like Newsom can pull down. As of the last full campaign report that extended through June 30, Newsom’s campaign had $494,000 in the bank after raising $1.4 million, and his recent late contribution reports show hundreds of thousands of dollars more rolling in since then.

Among the recent Newsom contributors are downtown political players such as the San Francisco Apartment Association ($3,500 on 9/16), Shorenstein Realty Services ($6,500 on 9/16), Recology (the company bidding on SF’s big garbage contract, $2,500 on 9/16), San Francisco Building Owners and Managers Association ($5,000 on 9/1), and Sen. Dianne Feinstein ($5,000 on 9/4) – all of which far exceeds the $500 local limit on campaign contributions

It’s unusual for a local and statewide candidate to share a phone-banking operation, and clearly a sign that Newsom would really like to deal with a more ideologically friendly (that is, less progressive) Board of Supervisors if he doesn’t move to Sacramento in January. And from a campaign finance perspective, both campaigns will probably need to document where the resources came from for this shared campaigning when the next pre-election statements are due on Oct. 5.

“Generally speaking, if they share resources they should be apportioning those costs,” Mabel Ng, deputy director of the San Francisco Ethics Commission, told the Guardian. Yet she also noted that California Gov. Code Section 84310 makes a distinction between automatic robo-calls and the kind of live “volunteer” that the caller identified himself as. “If it’s a live person, some of these rules don’t apply,” Ng said. If that’s the case, Sparks might be in for lots of no-cost campaigning during the final pre-election push.

The Newsom campaign has not responded to a Guardian inquiry about the issue, but Sparks returned our call after this article was initially posted. Although she took issue with the implication that there was anything wrong with her benefitting from calls by the Newsom campaign, comparing it to the support Walker has received from the Democratic County Central Committee, she admits to the coordination on the matter between her campaign and Newsom’s.

“Newsom had a volunteer phone bank and he asked if he shoudl add my name to it and I said yes,” Sparks told the Guardian, adding that she’s been pleased with the response to this effort and her own campaign’s phonebanking efforts.

Meanwhile, while Sparks just got a boost from above today, so did Newsom, who was the subject of an e-mail blast from former President Bill Clinton, who wrote, “We have a tremendous opportunity in Jerry Brown and Gavin Newsom, two leaders who realize the promise of their state and will get it back on track. Please join me in helping these candidates win in November.”

Trash war hits Chamber of Commerce lunch


The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce is hosting a lunch with Recology today in an apparent effort to push a garbage transportation/disposal contract that the Board of Supervisors hasn’t yet approved.

The Guardian wrote about this ongoing landfill disposal contract dispute between Recology and Waste Management earlier this year, and to date, the Board has not voted on the matter.

But judging from the tone of the following press release, the Chamber, whose incoming chair elect is Recology Vice President John Legnitto, has already made its decision:

“Please join us for a lunch with Recology to learn about the San Francisco’s garbage by Green Rail to Ostrom Road project,” the Chamber states, noting that until the city’s goal of zero waste is reached, “some material will still need to be sent to landfill.”
“A panel of city officials from San Francisco and Oakland chose Recology Ostrom Road Landfill to receive garbage from San Francisco after the city’s current landfill agreement ends in 2015,” the Chamber continues, without bothering to note that this plan involves hauling the city’s waste all the way to Yuba County, which is three times further away than San Francisco’s current waste disposal contract with Waste Management at the Altamont Landfill, near Livermore.

“Officials say the plan to ship San Francisco’s garbage by Green Rail to Ostrom Road is the most cost-effective and environmental option for transporting waste,” the Chamber continues.  “Rail haul is at least three times more efficient than trucking, takes trucks off the road, and cuts fuel consumption and air emissions.” And it encourages folks to learn more about the plan to ship the city’s garbage to Ostrom Road, by visiting Recology’s Ostrom Road site:

Not to be outdone, Waste Management, Inc.has put together a video clip that features on-the-street interviews in downtown San Francisco with local residents–including an amazing “Statue Man” in Justin Herman Plaza– about its competing plan to convert San Francisco’s garbage into liquid natural gas that would then fuels its garbage trucks.

Meanwhile, the Sierra Club has asked the Board of Supervisors to schedule a public hearing. In a September 17 email, sent to Board President David Chiu and the rest of the Board, Rebecca Evans, chair of the Sierra Club’s San Francisco Group, requested that the Board hold a public information hearing on the current status of the City’s contract for landfill operations, starting in 2015.  

“Some months ago, the Department of the Environment ‘selected’ Recology’s proposal to transport San Francisco’s waste to Yuba County,” Evans notes. “A contract was to be released in June 2010.  We understand the confidential nature of contract negotiations but it is September and no further information has been made public.”

“To be clear, the San Francisco Bay Chapter has no policy position on the plan to move landfill operations from the current Waste Management Alameda County Altamont site to Recology’s Ostrom Road destination,” Evans clarifies. “However our chapter and the Club’s Mother Lode Chapter have strong interests in the proposal and how it might be carried out. We ask you to hold a hearing in the near future so that the public can have a fuller understanding of this important issue.”



In the dumps


From Kurt Schwitters’ dwelling-consuming accretion The Merzbau to Tim Noble and Sue Webster’s silhouette-casting garbage heaps, making art from the discard pile is by no means a new gesture. It can still be a potent one, though, as evinced by “Art at the Dump,” a 20-year survey of the fruits of Recology’s artist in residence program at Intersection for the Art’s new gallery space in the historic San Francisco Chronicle building.

Recology’s program — the first of its kind in the nation — has grown immensely since the late artist and activist Jo Hanson first reached out to the Sanitary Fill Company back in 1990 and got her hands dirty. Today, participating artists are provided with a stipend and a studio in which to create work from materials scavenged from the Public Disposal and Recycling Area (a.k.a. “the dump”). The residency also involves community outreach, with artists speaking to the more than 5,000 students and adults who annually attend tours of the city’s garbage and recycling facility.

As in any large group show, the creative mileage at “Art at the Dump” varies. More than a few residents over the years seem unified in their studied appreciation of Robert Rauschenberg’s combines and Joseph Cornell’s shadow boxes, but their final pieces often lack Rauschenberg’s precise eye for juxtaposition or Cornell’s tender hermeticism. Mark Faigenbaum’s (2005) wonderful Pop 66 (2) — a chopped-up 1966 Muni bus poster arranged into a quilt-like pattern of concentric squares — on the other hand, stands on its own as an abstract reconfiguration of its source material while also evoking Charles Demuth’s precisionist oils.

If one artist’s trash doesn’t always make for treasure, at the very least you can count on a conversation piece. A sculpture by Casey Logan (2008) consists of a section of a tree trunk whose upper half has been, as if by the intervention of some magic beavers, whittled into a two-by-four complete with barcode sticker. It is called Destiny. It makes for a humorous pairing with Linda Raynsford’s (2000) two Tree Saws: old handsaws whose rusted blades Raynsford delicately cut into the outlines of forest giants.

Other past residents have taken a craftier approach. Estelle Akamine’s 1993 evening skirt and fantastically fringed cape made from computer tape ribbon could easily pass for one of Gareth Pugh’s recent gothic runway looks.

Perhaps the exhibit’s final word belongs to Donna Keiko Ozawa’s 2001 conceptual sculpture Art Reception, a found jug filled to the top with trash produced during a gallery’s opening reception. Cleverly recalling Oscar Wilde’s famous opening salvo in The Picture of Dorian Gray that “All art is quite useless,” Ozawa’s piece also underscores that the process of art-making — from a piece’s creation to its display — leaves its own set of carbon footprints.



Robb Putnam’s also no stranger to refuse. The titular orphans in the Oakland artist’s first solo exhibition at Rena Bransten are large, cartoonish canine heads made from compacted scraps of old blankets, fake fur, bubble-wrap, and it seems whatever else Putnam swept off his studio floor.

Mike Kelley’s perverse stuffed animal sculptures and the grotesque composite portraits of Giuseppe Arcimboldo both come to mind here. But with their Augie Doggie-like curves and permanently wagging tongues, Putnam’s mutts are more pitiable than abject. Skinned and beheaded, they are mascots for the unwanted and forgotten.

The show is only up for four more days, so run don’t walk to take in all the plush sadness.


Through Sept. 25, free

Intersection 5M

925 Mission, SF

(415) 626-2787


Through Aug. 21, free

Rena Bransten Gallery

49 Geary, SF

(415) 982-3292


Trashy art: Recology’s 20 years of shoving artists into heaps


One thing I learned yesterday about the artist in residence program at the Recology dump; Sirron Norris and other alums were not wading through the mountains of lightly used diapers and rotting carrots to cull the materials for the flights of foraged fancy they produce in the program, a 20-year retrospective of which opens today, Wed/21, at Intersection 5M. No no, they pick through the goods turned up by the city’s curb-side and drop-off recycling program, which you think would be a little cleaner. I mean, look at the art they made from it. But you’d be surprised…  

“That section anyone can drop something off is where you garbage pick,” artist Sirron Norris tells me when I called him up for comment on the sweet gallery show Recology’s assembled. He assured me that the dump’s program changed his artistic trajectory, and yet “You will come across rotting food — vegetables and rotting stuff. They’ll dump fish in the styrofoam cases, a lot of vegetables — a lot. Ive seen all kinds of stuff, nasty stuff and trippy stuff, a box full of stuffed animals; a box you could fit a loveseat in [note: here Norris commenced with a story about said box I don’t feel comfortable relating to my gentle readers. Ask him for details when you see him, dear ones]. Tons of pills, so many pills. Cough syrup.” 

“It’s up to them if they want to wear a respirator,” says dump advisory board member (and program director for Intersection for the Arts, who let us into the building even though I blatantly got the day wrong of the exhibit’s opening reception – thanks!) Kevin Chen. Artists, who spend up to eight hours a day at the recycling facility, are encouraged to wear not only steel toed boats, but also steel soled boots. Tre rugged, no?

But judging from the gems assembled at the Recology retrospective, the experience is more than worth the sanitary incursions. A kicky dress made from bottle caps and junk food wrappers by Remi Rubel hung next to Sandy Drobny’s intricately woven “Caution” tape apron. I wanted them for my own, just like I wanted to sit and finger Linda Raynsford’s saws carved to resemble their enemies in nature, the majestic fir tree, every day before I head to work. 

What I saw yesterday

The retrospective provides a lot to look at, nearly all of it made from things that otherwise would have been crushed into recycling. Packard Jennings created a “Terrorist Alert” board during his 2003 residency, which he installed on Division Street to warn post- 9/11 automobile drivers of threat levels approaching the ominous “pineapple” or “far-fetched” measure of urgency. David Hevel’s trio of bright fascinators – which he reverse-melts with a blowtorch in a video installation included in the gallery – baffled me with their preciousness until Chen cleared up their providence. “Sometimes a party store will drop off a whole bunch of stuff,” he said. Ah, streamers and sparkles, got it. 

Perhaps for obvious reasons, the residency program is an SF exclusive in this country. Chen says a similar program is being plotted for Portland, Oregon, but the set up – which allows artists free range in the recycling area in exchange for giving Recology temporary ownership of the pieces created, plus a few for their permanent collection – is mainly made possible here by a dump administration who, Chen told us, “really loves art.” Thanks guys! The whole thing left me stoked to check out the actual trash heap itself, where a sculpture garden lives and where regular gallery openings give people a chance to see their waste in a whole new light. 

Just like Norris did. “You’d see these piles and the piles would have these really great stories,” the artist told me, speaking as a man who knows the worth of another’s cast-offs. “I furnished my entire apartment from that place — cool stuff too, like old displays from Radio Shack.” 


Art at the Dump: 20 Years of the Artist in Residence Program at Recology

opening reception: Wed/21 6-8 p.m., free

through Sept. 25


925 Mission, SF

Following Recology’s $$$ to Environment Commission and DCCC


If you’ve been looking for a financial connection between the city’s tentative decision to award the next landfill disposal contract to Recology, which plans to dispose of our trash in Yuba County, then you’ll be interested in this campaign finance item: Because records show that Recology contributed $5,000 last year to SF Forward, a San Francisco Chamber of Commerce political action committee, which also got Money  from Bechtel, Medjool, PG&E, Charles Schwab, and Shorenstein Realty.

Recology Vice President and Group Manager John Legnitto is Chamber’s Chair Elect.

In the last two years, the Chamber contributed $10,000 to Plan C, a political action committee that advocates for more condo conversions and less tenants’ rights.And Plan C gave Commission of the Environment President Matt Tuchow $3,300 for his failed 2010 Democratic CCC bid.

So, while the transactions were legal, with the money laundered twice in between, these dollar connections will probably have folks opposed to the city’s plan to dispose of its waste in Recology’s landfill in Yuba County asking if this explains why Tuchow decided to limit public comment to only one minute when folks wanted to voice concerns at a March 23 hearing at the Environment Commission about an alleged lack of fairness and transparency in the decision to award the contract to Recology.

Especially those folks who drove three hours from Yuba County, which is where Recology proposes to send our trash. And folks who helped negotiate the city’s current trash disposal contract and were shocked that the city would set a one-minute time limit on what they claim is a $1 billion contract, once you factor in the cost of transportation, new trash processing facilities and an as yet unbuilt rail spur that Recology needs inYuba County to transfer trash from the Union Pacific line to its landfill in Wheatland,

Tuchow, who works in the Global Compliance and Ethics Division of McKesson Corporation in San Francisco, had not returned calls as of blog post  time, but if and when he does, I’ll be sure to post an update here.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t look as if Recology’s bucks and/or Mayor Gavin Newsom’s powergrabbing antics, are going to be able to help shoehorn Tuchow onto the DCCC, even in light of Newsom’s newly hatched plan for dominion for the following reasons:

1. Results from the June 8 election show that Tuchow was fourth failed runner up in the DCCC 12th district. (Milton Marks, Sup. Eric Mar, Melanie Nutter, Arlo Smith, Connie O’Connor, Tom A. Hsieh, Jane Morrison, Mary Jung, Sandra Lee Fewer, Michael Bornstein, Sup. John Avalos and Bill Fazio were the top vote getters to win seats, beating out Larry Yee, Jake McGoldrick, Hene Kelly and then Tuchow, in that order.)

2.. It’s not clear if Newsom’s plan for the DCCC is even legal.

3. Even if Newsom’s plan survives a legal challenge, it’s not clear that the law would have the retroactive effect necessary to oust Mar and Avalos.

4. And even if it did, under state law,  DCCC Chair Aaron Peskin would get to appoint folks to fill those vacancies,
“This is about clean money and good government,” Newsom spokesman Tony Winnicker told reporters of Newsom’s DCCC plan.

So, let’s hope the Mayor’s Office applies the same standards when it comes to opening the landfill disposal contract bids this summer and shining light on the money that’s influencing the city’s garbage disposal contract. 

Meanwhile, Peskin, who was reached by cell phone somewhere near Moab, in Utah, where he’s taking his annual camping and hiking trip with his wife, told the Guardian that Newsom “is not thinking very far ahead” with his latest dominion scheme.



Tale of two landfills


Everyone should make a pilgrimage to the landfill where their city’s garbage is buried. For San Francisco residents to really understand the current trash situation — and its related issues of transportation, environmental justice, greenhouse gas reduction, corporate contracting, and pursuing a zero waste goal — that means taking two trips.

The first is a relatively short trek to Waste Management’s Altamont landfill in the arid hills near Livermore, which is where San Francisco’s trash has been taken for three decades. The next is a far longer journey to the Ostrom Road landfill near Wheatland in Yuba County, a facility owned by Recology (formerly NorCal Waste Systems, San Francisco’s longtime trash collector) on the fertile eastern edge of the Sacramento Valley, where officials want to dispose of the city’s trash starting in 2015.

Both these facilities looked well managed, despite their different geographical settings, proving that engineers can place a landfill just about anywhere. But landfills are sobering reminders of the unintended consequences of our discarded stuff. Plastic bags are carried off by the wind before anyone can catch them. Gulls and crows circle above the massive piles of trash, searching for food scraps. And the air reeks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is second only to carbon dioxide as a manmade cause of global warming.

It’s also a reminder of a fact most San Franciscans don’t think much about: The city exports mountains of garage into somebody else’s backyard. While residents have gone a long way to reduce the waste stream as city officials pursue an ambitious strategy of zero waste by 2020, we’re still trucking 1,800 tons of garbage out of San Francisco every day. And now we’re preparing to triple the distance that trash travels, a prospect some Yuba County residents find troubling.

“The mayor of San Francisco is encouraging us to be a green city by growing veggies, raising wonderful urban gardens, composting green waste and food and restaurant scraps,” Irene Creps, a San Franciscan who owns a ranch in Wheatland, told us. “So why is he trying to dump San Francisco’s trash in a beautiful rural area?”

Behind that question is a complicated battle with two of the country’s largest private waste management companies bidding for a lucrative contract to pile San Francisco’s trash into big mountains of landfill far from where it was created. This is big and dirty business, one San Francisco has long chosen to contract out entirely, unlike most cities that at least collect their own trash.

So the impending fight over who gets to profit from San Francisco’s waste, a conflict that is already starting to get messy, could illuminate the darker side of our throwaway culture and how it is still falling short of our most wishful rhetoric.



The recent recommendation by a city committee to leave the Altamont landfill and turn almost all the city’s waste functions — collection, sorting, recycling, and disposal — over to Recology (see “Trash talk,” 3/30) angered Waste Management as well as some environmentalists and Yuba County residents.

WM claimed the contract selection process had been marred by fraud and favoritism, and members of YUGAG( Yuba Group Against Garbage) charged that sending our trash on a train through seven counties will affect regional air quality and greenhouse gas emissions and target a poor rural community. Observers also want details such as whether San Francisco taxpayers will have to pay for a new rail spur and a processing facility for organic matter.

Mark Westlund of the Department of Environment told the Guardian that negotiations between the city and Recology are continuing and the contract bids remain under seal. “Hopefully they’ll be concluded in the near future,” Westlund said. “I can’t pinpoint an exact date because the deal is still being fleshed out, but some time this summer.”

Under the tentative plan, Recology’s trucks would haul San Francisco’s trash across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, where the garbage would be loaded onto trains three times a week and hauled to Wheatland. Recology claims its proposal is better for the environment and the economy because it takes trucks off the road and removes organic matter from the waste before it reaches the landfill and turns into methane gas.

But WM officials reject the claim, noting that both facilities will convert methane to electricity, energy now used to fuel the trucks going to Altamont. The landfill produces 8.5 MW of electricity annually, some of which is converted into 4.7 million gallons of liquid natural gas used by 300 trucks. The Ostrom Road facility would produce far less methane, using it to create 1.5 MW of electricity annually.

Recology officials say removing organic matter to produce less methane is an environmental plus because much of the methane from Altamont escapes into the atmosphere and adds to global warming, although WM claims to capture 90 percent of it. Yet David Assman, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, doesn’t believe WM figures, telling us that they are “not realistic or feasible.”

State and federal environmental officials say about a quarter of the methane gas produced in landfills ends up in the atmosphere. “But they acknowledge that this is an average. Some landfills can be worse, others much better if they have a good design. And there is no company that has done as much work on this as Waste Management,” company spokesperson Chuck White told us, citing WM-sponsored studies indicating a methane capture rate as high as 92 percent. “The idea of 90 percent capture of methane is very credible if you are running a good operation.”

Ken Lewis, director of WM’s landfills, said the facility’s use of methane to cleanly power its trucks has been glossed over in the debate over this contract. “We’re just tapping into the natural carbon cycle,” Lewis told us.

But Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti (who works for Singer & Associates, San Francisco’s premier crisis communications firm) counters that it’s better to avoid producing methane in the first place because some of it escapes and adds to global warming, which Recology claims it will do by sorting the waste, in the process creating green jobs in the organics recycling and reducing the danger of the gases leaking or even exploding.

“But what has Recology done to show us that the capture rate at their Ostrom landfill is on the high side?” Lewis asks. “Folks in San Francisco say it’s not possible, but we’ve got published reports.”

Assman admits that San Francisco won’t be able to ensure that other municipalities that use Ostrom Road will be focusing on organics recycling. While questions remain about how that facility will ultimately handle a massive influx of garbage, Altamont has been housing the Bay Area’s trash for decades. And even though San Francisco’s current contract will expire by 2015, this sprawling facility nestled in remote hillsides can still handle more trash for decades to come.



Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Altamont landfill is the 30-foot-tall fence that sits on a ridge on the perimeter of the facility. It’s covered with plastic bags that have escaped the landfill and rolled like demonic tumbleweeds along what looks like a desolate moonscape.

Wind keeps the blades turning on the giant Florida Power-owned windmills that line the Altamont hills, but it also puffs plastic bags up like little balloons that take off before the bulldozers can compress them into the fill. Lewis said he bought a special machine to suck up the bags, and employs a team of workers to collect them from the buffer zone surroundinge site.

Although difficult to control or destroy, plastic bags are not a huge part of the waste volume. San Francisco has already banned most stores from using them, and the California Legislature is contemplating expanding the ban statewide in a effort to limit a waste product now adding to a giant trash heap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

“Plastic bags are a visual shocker,” said Marc Roberts, community development director for the city of Livermore. “In that sense, they are similar to Styrofoam. It’s pretty nasty stuff, can get loose, and doesn’t break down. But they’re not a major part of the volume.”

Yet Roberts said that these emotional triggers give us a peek into the massive operations that process the neverending stream of waste that humans produce and don’t really think about that often.

“Our world is so mechanized,” Roberts observed. “Stuff disappears in middle of night, and we don’t see where it goes.”

San Francisco officials confirm that the trend of disappearing stuff in the night will continue, no matter which landfill waste disposal option the city selects.

“No matter what option, it’s going to involve some transportation to wherever,” Assman said. Currently, Recology and WM share control over San Francisco’s waste stream. But that could change if the waste disposal contract goes to Recology.

A privately-held San Francisco firm, Recology has the monopoly over San Francisco’s waste stream from curbside collection to the point when it heads to the landfill. Waste Management, a publicly-traded company that is the nation’s largest waste management operation, owns 159 of the biggest landfills in the nation, including Altamont, the seventh-largest capacity landfill in the nation.

San Francisco started sending its trash to Altamont in 1987, when it entered into a contract with Waste Management for 65 years or 15 million tons of capacity, a level expected to be hit by 2015, triggering the current debate over whether it would be better to send San Francisco’s waste on a northbound train.



Creps, 76, a retired school teacher, warns folks to watch out for rattlesnakes as she shows them around this flood-prone agricultural community.

“This is an ancient sea terrace, and now it’s fertile grazing ground between creeks,” Creps said as we walked around the ranchland that Creps’ grandfather settled when he came to California in 1850. Today he lies buried here in a pioneer cemetery, along with Creps’ adopted daughter, Sophie, who was killed at age 27 after she witnessed a friend’s murder in Oakland in 2006.

Creps’ cousin, Bill Middleton, who grows walnuts on a ranch adjacent to hers, worries about the landfill’s potential impact on the groundwater. “The water table is really high here, so you’ve go a whole pond of water sitting under this thing,” Middleton said.

Wheatland’s retired postmaster, Jim Rice, recalled that when the landfill opened on Ostrom Road in the 1980s, individual cities had veto power over any expansion plans. “But Chris Chandler, who was then the Assembly member for Sutter County and is now a judge, carried a bill in legislature to do away with veto power,” Rice said.

“So we lost out and ended up with a dump,” Middleton said.

Creps believes the landfill should be for the use of local residents only. “There’s a lot of development going on around here and the population is going to grow,” she said. “But at this rate, this landfill will be used up before Yuba and the surrounding counties can use it. And that’s not fair. They think they can get a foothold in places off the beaten path.”

Yet not everyone in Yuba County hates San Francisco’s Ostrom Road plan. On June 7, the Yuba-Sutter Economic Development Corporation backed Recology’s plan to build a rail spur to cover the 100 yards from the Union Pacific line to the landfill site.

EDC’s Brynda Stranix said the garbage deal is still subject to approval by San Francisco officials, but will bring needed money to the county. “The landfill is already permitted to take up to 3,000 tons of garbage a day and it’s taking in about 800 tons a day now,” Stranix said.

If the deal goes through, it would triple the current volume at the landfill, entitling Yuba County to $22 million in host fees over 10 years.

Recology’s Phil Graham clarified that Ostrom Road is considered a regional landfill, one that has already grown to 100 feet above sea level and is permitted to rise another 165 feet into the air. “So even with the waste stream from San Francisco,” he said, “we’ll still be operating well under the tonnage limits.”

“The world has changed. Federal regulations come in, and landfill operations change,” Recology’s Alberti said as we toured the site. “And there really are no longer any local landfills. This one is already operating, accepting regional waste.”

He claimed that Livermore residents had similar concerns to those now expressed in Yuba County when San Francisco’s waste started going to Altamont. Livermore and Sierra Club brought a lawsuit around plans to expand the dump, a suit that forced WM to create an $10 million open space fund.

Alberti said he understands that people like Creps are concerned. “But we are not seeking an expansion. The only thing we are asking for is a rail track.

“From our point of view it’s simple,” he continued. “We have the facility; Ostrom Road is close to rail; and it’s not open to the public. So it’s a tightly contained working area.”

Graham, the facility’s manager, also dismissed concerns that the landfill might harm the groundwater or the health of the local environment. “A lot of people don’t know how highly regulated we are,” he said. “That’s why we are having public meetings. Our compass is out in the community. These are people we work and live with.”

Alberti said YUGAG and other opponents of the landfill aren’t numerous. “If we draw the circle wider to the two-county area, how many people even know a landfill is operating here?”

Graham takes that as a testament to how well the facility is operated. “I consider that a compliment. Obviously, we weren’t causing any problems.”



Those who run both landfills say they recognize that their industry’s heyday is over, and that the future will bring a more complicated system that sends steadily less trash to the landfills.

“Eventually we will be all out of business,” Alberti predicted. “One reason we changed our name was knowing that landfills are not sustainable. And that’s a significant difference. Waste Management is the largest landfill owner in the world. Recology is a recycling company that owns a few landfills and, for that reason, does innovative things like the food scraps program.”

But the company with the new green name has traditionally been a powerhouse in San Francisco’s trash industry, becoming a well-entrenched monopoly after buying out two local competitors — Sunset Scavenger and Golden Gate Disposal and Recycling — a triad that has long held exclusive rights over the city’s waste.

The 1932 Refuse Collection and Disposal Ordinance gave the company now calling itself Recology a rare and enviably monopoly on curbside collection, one that had no expiration date and would be difficult to change. “So legally, it’s not an option,” Assman said.

Retired Judge Quentin Kopp, a former member of the Board of Supervisors and California Legislature, got involved in an unsuccessful effort to break Recology’s curbside monopoly in the 1990s when the company then known as NorCal Waste asked for another rate increase. But he found the contractual structure to be almost impossible to break.

“The DPW director examines all the allowable elements and makes recommendations to the Rate Board,” Kopp said. “And the Rate Board consists of three people: the chief administrative officer, the controller, and the general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.”

SFPUC General Manager Ed Harrington says Recology’s curbside monopoly is unusual compared to other places, but it also makes the company a strong contender to the landfill contract. “It comes down to economies of scale. If you don’t have a contract with a facility that does recycling or waste disposal, you can collect the garbage, but where are you going to take it?”

Harrington said the situation was better before Recology purchased Sunset Scavenger, which mostly handled residential garbage, and Golden Gate, which mostly handled commercial garbage. Today, he said, the city has little control over commercial garbage rates or Recology’s overall finances. “That made it more difficult, and we only set the rate of residential garbage collection,” Harrington observed. “They have never come before the rate appeal board over commercial rates. I have asked who subsidizes whom, the commercial or the residential, and they say they think the commercial. But we have no ability to govern or manage those rates.”

WM’s Skolnick said a positive outcome of the current contract negotiations would be to break Recology’s monopoly on curbside collection. “We have to work to keep our business. That’s the competitive process. But we have a competitor that can encroach into our area even though we can’t encroach on San Francisco. And they claim to have one of the most competitive rates in the country — but try getting those numbers,” he said.

WM’s David Tucker added: “We’d like if San Francisco jumped into the 21st century and had a competitive bid process.”



The battle between WM’s local landfill option and Recology’s plan for a longer haul but with more diversion of organic materials is complicated, so much so that the local Sierra Club chapter has yet to take a position.

Glen Kirby of the Sierra Club’s Alameda County chapter told the Guardian that the Sierra Club’s East Bay, San Francisco, and Yuba chapters are taking a “wait and see what becomes public next” stance for now. But insiders say the club’s national position is against landfill gas conversion projects like that at Altamont, possibly favoring Recology’s bid.

Recology proponents claim the Sierra Club didn’t initially oppose landfill gas conversions because its members in the East Bay benefit from an open space fund that WM pays into as mitigation for a 1980 expansion at the Altamont. And Alberti claimed that WM’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions from the competing waste transportation plans was flawed.

“Their calculation is a shell game. And it relies on Recology using diesel when we are using green biodiesel trains. This is not your grandfather’s train any more. One train equals 200 trucks,” Alberti said.

But WM’s Lewis defends the company’s analysis, which showed Recology’s bid to be worse for greenhouse gas emissions than WM’s.

“Landfill gas is a byproduct of an existing system,” Lewis said, noting that 43 percent of the trash buried at Altamont comes from San Francisco. The implication is that a large part of the methane in the landfill comes from — and benefits — San Francisco.

“We are delivering waste products that contain organics,” he said. “We realized that we could flare methane [to burn it up] or produce electricity. California has very aggressive landfill gas requirements, and the collection rates are relatively good at most sites. But once you’ve collected it, what to do? Historically, they flared the gas. Twenty years ago, there was not a lot of technology to allow anything else.”

Lewis says WM began producing electricity from the gas in 1987. “What we do in the future is decoupled from what was giving us the methane in the past,” he said. “Today we are managing what was brought here 15-20 years ago. It’s your hamburger, cardboard, and paper that has been sitting up there since 1998. We’re doing something good with something that we used to flare.”

“If Altamont was closed today, the gas yield coming off it would be enough to produce 10,000 gallons a day for the next 25 years,” WM’s Bay Area president Barry Skolnick interjected.

And Lewis observed that if you take organics out of the waste stream, as Recology proposes, that matter has value, whether in a digester to produce energy or a composting operation. That complicates the comparison of the two bids.

“We agree that if you can get that waste out in a clean form, that’s a good thing,” Lewis said. “But composting is a very highly polluting approach. In the process of degrading, it gives off a lot of volatiles and carbon dioxide. So air districts have not traditionally been very positive on sitting aerobic composting facilities.”



The contract that San Francisco has tentatively awarded to Recology is for 5 million tons or 10 years, whichever comes sooner. As such, it’s a much smaller contract than the city’s 1987 contract with WM, mostly because the future is uncertain.

But trucks will remain a part of the equation. Recology is proposing to continue driving 92 truckloads of garbage over the Bay Bridge per day, possibly to keep the Teamsters happy, frustrating transportation advocates who believe direct rail haul or barges across the bay would be greener options.

In December 2009, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Bob Morales, director of the Teamsters Union Waste Division, cowrote an op-ed in the Sunday Sacramento Bee, in which they argued the case for increased recycling and composting as a “zero waste” strategy for California and as a way to generate green jobs and reduce global warming.

“Equally important for the future of our green economy is that recycling and composting mean jobs,” Newsom and Morales wrote. “The Institute for Local Self-Reliance reports that every additional 10,000 tons recycled translates into 10 new frontline jobs and 25 new jobs in recycling-based manufacturing.”

Newsom and Morales clarified that they do not support waste-to-energy or landfilling as part of their zero waste vision.

“It makes no sense to burn materials or put them in a hole in the ground when these same materials can be turned into the products and jobs of the future,” they stated.

Yet WM’s Skolnick sees a certain hypocrisy in San Francisco turning its back on the methane gas that its garbage helped create at Altamont over the past three decades. “Here’s a very progressive city, and we want to take their waste from the last 30 years and use gas from it to fuel their trucks,” he said. “But they want to haul waste three times as far to Wheatland. What does that say about San Francisco’s mission to become the greenest city?”

David Pilpel, a political activist who has followed the contract, agreed that San Francisco officials can’t simply walk away from Altamont and call it a green move, but he would like to see the city use rail rather than trucks. “Instead of putting stuff on long-haul trucks, put it on a rail gondola and haul it around the peninsula to Livermore,” he said. “The Altamont expansion was for San Francisco’s purposes. So to say now, ‘We’ll go elsewhere,’ is lame.”

Sally Brown, a research associate professor at the University of Washington, acknowledges that landfills have done a great job of giving us places to dump our stuff and can be skillfully engineered to release less methane and capture more productive biogases.

“However, we are entering a new era where resources are limited and carbon is king,” Brown wrote in the May 2010 edition of Biocycle magazine. “In this new era, dumping stuff may cease to be an option because that stuff has value. and that value can be efficiently extracted for costs that are comparable to or lower than the costs — both environmental and monetary — associated with dumping.”

The San Francisco Board of Supervisors will vote on the contract later this year, deciding whether to validate the Department of the Environment’s choice of Recology or go with WM. Either way, lawsuits are likely to follow.

Emerald city


GREEN ISSUE Walk out your front door today and you won’t find a corner store that doesn’t sell “organic food,” a restaurant whose we-buy-sustainable addendum reads “whenever possible,” a trash can with a precious separate compartment for your all-natural soda cans. It’s hard to forget that it’s not all another secret plan from the government to make your life less fun. But it’s not! Below, please find assembled an all-star list of resources that are honest-to-goodness designed to help you help out our little ball, spinning all terrestrially out in space.

They’ve tried to make it easy on you. Compost goes in green! Beer bottles in blue! Devil Styrofoam — where’d you get that? — in black! But still, you have questions. What about the bottle caps? Can I recycle the bag my Korean taco came in? Can I get a new green bin without a rat-hole in it? (Yes! No, that’s compost! Yes, but work on that vermin problem!) One quick stop at the Recology SF Web site has you sorted. You’ll also find info on the dump’s sculpture garden — the world’s only garbage company’s art park.

Because that window box in your bedroom hasn’t contributed anything to dinner in way too long, SF Garden Resource Organization maintains a database on everything you need to grow your own sustenance in the city. Find within its welcoming Internet embrace info on cheap local classes to turn that idle thumb green, all kinds of gardening pointers, and the lowdown on which community gardens are accepting new plot tenders.

They’re awful, aren’t they? And they’re all around us, which is why the Environmental Health Association of Nova Scotia’s toxicity guide for everyday lotions, cleaners, and pet products is so nice to have on hand. Thanks, Nova Scotia! For up close and personal commerce, the friendly worker-owners at Rainbow Grocery can steer you toward natural household products. An there are a bajillion lovely shops like Marie Veronique Organics (1790 Fifth St., Berk.) that’ll sell you the good local stuff. Kill your junk mail with the support of the helpful folks at Bay Area Recycling Outreach Coalition.

Go organic or go secondhand. For natural fiber or recycled fabric gear, the Bay’s got lots of flash spots like Ladita (827 Cortland, SF. 415-648-4397 or Eco Citizen (1488 Vallejo, SF. 415-614-0100. Little Otsu (849 Valencia, SF. 415-255-7900 is all you need for gift shopping, with unique posters, books, and various assorted preciousness. But for the broke environmentalists, wait for the $2 per item of clothing sales at Goodwill (Various locations,, Mission Thrift (2330 Mission, SF. 415-821-9560), or even one of the several consignment stores along Fillmore like Repeat Performance (2436 Fillmore, SF. 415-563-3123) or Seconds to Go (2252 Fillmore, SF. 415-563-7806) to feel good about confounding consumerism. The big fish in our green pond, however, remains the invaluable Green Zebra coupon book, with hundreds of deals on earth-lovin’ spas, goods, and adventures.

There are oodles of spots to help you make a night of it without playing our environment for a fool. Terroir (1116 Folsom, SF. (415) 558-9546, serves elegant, chemical-free wines that taste even better if the wine-bar’s adorably scruffy owners pour them. Thirsty Bear Brewpub (661 Howard, SF. (415) 974-0905. has a stellar system of low-waste operation and serves only organic brews through its taps. For the club kids, the eco spot de rigueur is Temple (540 Howard, SF. (415) 978-8853, where owner Paul Hemming’s Zen Compound concept is expanding to include a roof garden, global art gallery, and dance floor that harnesses the energy expended on beats.

Of course, you could always do something outside your day’s normal scope. Hit up the following organizations to make change in your little corner of the world: Roots of Change for food sustainability issues, Livable City for hopes of a future outside our cars, and Planning and Conservation League for work on issues like global warming and water usage.

Recology can’t have it both ways


Critics of San Francisco’s plan to award Recology the city’s trash disposal contract just alerted me to the curious fact that if you watch this video link (scroll down through the video clips to “Garbage 2”), you’ll hear Recology COO George McGrath say that rail haul in California isn’t economically viable.

The link features three excerpts of a August 2009 hearing in Humboldt County regarding rail hauling of Bay Area waste to Winnemucca, Nevada–a plan that got blocked this week.

And as critics of San Francisco’s plan note, that’s a curious thing for McGrath to say in Nevada given that Recology is proposing to haul San Francisco’s trash by rail to the Ostrom Road landfill in Yuba County, which is a 238-mile round trip.

Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti told me that while he hasn’t viewed the video in question, he believes folks are taking McGrath’s comments out of context, since McGrath wasn’t talking about the San Francisco proposal.

“In this particular case,” Alberti said, referring to the San Francisco contract, “rail works fine. Clearly pricing on rail was superior and allowed us the recommendation based on that grading criteria.”

“At the end of the day,” Alberti said, turning the focus back on Waste Management, Recology’s main competition for the San Francisco landfill disposal contract, “we are looking at a very monied competitor who wants the business. Our proposal is recommended by the City and County of San Francisco as the best cost alternative and, we believe, the most environmentally sustainable.”


Recology’s Nevada landfill blocked


The Las Vegas Review-Journal is reporting that the Planning Commission in Humboldt County, Nevada blocked Recology’s landfill expansion application in Winnemucca, which is halfway between San Francisco and Salt Lake City.

The news comes close on the heels of the Guardian’s report that San Francisco has tentatively selected Recology to dispose of the city’s waste in Yuba County.

The LVRJ articles notes that “Recology wants to haul in 4,000 tons of garbage a day from Northern California communities for the next 95 years and dump it on the desert playa about 28 miles west of Winnemucca.”

Adam Alberti, a spokesman for Recology and the Jungo Land Co., is quoted as saying that the commission’s decision “could cost the region more than $660 million and new jobs.”

And U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., is quoted as calling the proposed dump a threat to Nevada’s “sovereignty and dignity.”

“The proposal to dump a mountain of California trash in Nevada is a lose-lose proposition for our state,” Reid said. “The people of Humboldt County have made it clear they don’t want other states dumping trash in their backyards, and I applaud their decision. “

Asked if there was a connection between the proposed Nevada dump and San Francisco’s trash, given that the city is only proposing a ten-year contract with Recology in Yuba County, Alberti said the landfill Recology was pursuing in Nevada is a “speculative effort” and that San Francisco “prohibits its waste from being taken out of state.”

“Recology has no contract in Winnemucca, and you have to have a landfill open before you can enter into a contract,” he said.

Here in San Francisco, District 10 candidate Eric Smith said he wants to see a whole lot more light being shone on the debate about what to do with the city’s trash.

“There needs to more transparency and accountability in the debate, which needs to include looking at all aspects of the issue, including where and how we transport our trash,” Smith said. “Should we barge, rail or truck it? What are the economic and environmental consequences? And is this something the citizens and ratepayers of San Francisco can support? Instead, there appear to be three main companies duking it out under cloak of darkness.”

Trash talk


The battle to win San Francisco’s lucrative garbage disposal contract turned nasty as city officials tentatively recommended it go to Recology (formerly Norcal Waste Systems), causing its main competitor, Oakland-based Waste Management, to claim the selection process was flawed and bad for the environment.

Recology is proposing to dispose of San Francisco’s nonrecyclable trash at its Ostrom Road landfill in Yuba County, which is double the distance of the city’s current dump. The contract, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, would run until 2025.

For the past three decades, the city has trucked its trash 62 miles to the Altamont landfill near Livermore, under an agreement that relied on the services of the Sanitary Fill Company (now Recology’s SF Recycling and Disposal) and Oakland Scavenger Company (now Waste Management of Alameda County).

That agreement allowed up to 15 million tons of San Francisco’s municipal solid waste to be handled at Altamont or 65 years of disposal, whichever came first. As of Dec. 31, 2007, approximately 11.9 million tons of the capacity had been used, leaving a balance of 3.1 million tons, which the city estimates will be used up by 2015.

Currently Recology collects San Francisco’s curbside trash, hauls it to Pier 96, which is owned by the Port of San Francisco, then sends nonrecyclables to the Altamont landfill operated by Waste Management.

After SF’s Department of the Environment issued a request for qualifications in 2007, Waste Management, Recology, and Republic Services were selected as finalists. The city then sent the three companies a request for proposals, asking for formal bids as well as details of how they would minimize and mitigate impacts to the environment, climate, and host communities, among other criteria.

Republic was dropped after a representative failed to show at a mandatory meeting, and Recology was selected during a July 2009 review by a committee composed of DOE deputy director David Assmann, city administrator Ed Lee and Oakland’s environmental manager Susan Kattchee.

The score sheet suggests that the decision came down to price, which was 25 percent of the total points and made the difference between Recology’s 85 points and Waste Management’s 80 in the average scores of the three reviewers. But the scores revealed wide disparities between Kattchee’s and Lee’s scores, suggesting some subjectivity in the process.

For instance, Kattchee and Lee awarded Recology 15 and 23 points, respectively, for its “approach and adherence to overarching considerations.” Kattchee awarded 13 points to Recology’s “ability to accommodate City’s waste stream,” while Lee gave it 24 points. And Kattchee awarded Waste Management 13 points and Lee gave it 20 for its proposed rates.

When the selections and scores were unveiled in November, Waste Management filed a protest letter; Yuba County citizens coalition YUGAG (Yuba Group against Garbage) threatened to sue; and Matt Tuchow, president of the city’s Commission on Environment, scheduled a hearing to clarify how the city’s proposals was structured, how it scored competing proposals, and why it tentatively awarded Recology the contract.

Emotions ran high during the March 23 hearing, which did little to clarify why Recology was selected. Assmann said that much of the material that supports the city’s selection can’t be made public until the bids are unsealed, which won’t happen until the city completes negotiations with Recology and the proposal heads to the Board of Supervisors for approval.

YUGAG attorney Brigit Barnes said Recology’s proposal could negatively affect air quality in Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Yolo, Sacramento, and Yuba counties, and does not attain maximum possible reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Barnes pointed to a study commissioned by Waste Management showing the company’s biomethane-fueled trucks emit 68 percent fewer greenhouse gases than Recology’s proposed combination of trucks and trains.

Barnes further warned that Recology’s proposal might violate what she called “environmental justice strictures,” noting that “Yuba County has one of the lowest per capita incomes and one of the highest dependent populations in the state.”

She also claimed that awarding the contract to Recology would create a monopoly over the city’s waste stream and could expose the city to litigation. “Every aspect of garbage collection and waste treatment will be handled by Norcal’s companies,” Barnes stated, referring to antitrust laws against such monopolies.

Deputy City Attorney Tom Owen subsequently confirmed that the two main companies that handle San Francisco’s waste are Recology subsidiaries. “But it’s an open system,” Owen told the Guardian. “Recology would be the licensed collectors and would have the contract for disposal of the city’s trash.”

Irene Creps, a retired schoolteacher who lives in San Francisco and Yuba County, suggested at the hearing that the city should better compare the environmental characteristics of Ostrom Road and the Altamont landfill before awarding the contract. She said the Ostrom Road landfill poses groundwater concerns since it lies in a high water table next to a slough and upstream from a cemetery.

“It’s good agricultural land, especially along the creeks, red dirt that is wonderful for growing rice because it holds water,” Creps said of Recology’s site. “I’d hate to see that much garbage dumped on the eastern edge of Sacramento Valley.”

Livermore City Council member Jeff Williams said the Altamont landfill has the space to continue to dispose of San Francisco’s waste and he warned that Livermore will lose millions of dollars in mitigation fees it uses to preserve open space.

“Waste Management has done a spectacular job of managing the landfill and they have a best-in-their-class methane control system,” Williams said, noting that the company runs its power plants on electricity and its trucks on liquid methane derived from the dump.

Williams pointed out that the Altamont landfill is in a dry hilly range that lies out of sight, behind the windmills on the 1,000-foot high Altamont Pass. “It’s many miles from our grapevines, in an area used for cattle grazing because it’s not particularly fertile land,” Williams said. “We are filling valleys, not building mountains.”

Waste Management attorney John Lynn Smith told the commission that the city’s RFP process was flawed because it didn’t request a detailed analysis of transportation to the landfill sites or fully take into account greenhouse gas emissions, posing the question: “So, did you really get the best contract?”

David Gavrich, who runs San Francisco Bay Railroad and Waste Solutions Group, testified that he helped negotiate the city’s contract 35 years ago, saving taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars, and that the city needs to be smarter about this contract.

Gavrich and port director Monique Moyer wrote to the Department of the Environment in June 2009, stating their belief that shipping trash by rail directly from the port “can not only minimize environmental impacts, but can also provide an anchor of rail business from the port, and a key economic engine for the local Bayview-Hunters Point community, and the city as a whole.” But Gavrich said DOE never replied, even though green rail from San Francisco creates local jobs and further reduces emissions.

“Let the hearings begin so people get more than one minute to speak on a billion-dollar contract,” Gavrich said, citing the time limit imposed on speakers at the commission hearing.

Wheatland resident Dr. Richard A. Paskowitz blamed former Mayor Willie Brown’s close connection to Recology mogul Michael Sangiacomo for the company’s success in pushing through a state-approved 1988 extension of its Ostrom Road Landfill while assuring Yuba County residents that the site would only be used as a local landfill.

“The issue is that Yuba County is becoming the repository of garbage from Northern California,” Paskowitz said, claiming that the site already accepts trash from Nevada.

Members of the commission told Assmann that they wanted an update on the transportation issue, but they appeared to believe the process was fair. “One guy got the better score,” Commissioner Paul Pelosi Jr. said. “The fact that they may or may not have permits or the best location, that’s for the Board of Supervisors to take up.”

Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti told the Guardian that its bid was predominantly about handling the waste stream. “Everybody’s bid included transportation, so you include the cost of getting the trash there. But primarily we were looking at the cost of handing the city’s waste,” Alberti said. “Recology’s Ostrom Road facility has more than enough capacity to hold not only San Francisco’s, but also the surrounding region’s, waste.”

Alberti said Recology is still pursuing a permit for a rail spur to get the waste from Union Pacific’s line, which ends some 100 yards from Ostrom Road site. Still, he said the company is confident it will be awarded, calling this step “a pro forma application with Yuba County.” Alberti also noted that it’s normal for host communities to object to landfills but that Yuba County stands to gain $1.6 million from the deal in annual mitigation fees.

Assmann told the Guardian the selection process took into account issues raised at the hearing. “The important thing in a landfill is to make sure there is no seepage, no matter how much rainfall there is, “Assmann said. “And there are still two hurdles Recology needs to clear: a successful negotiation, and the approval of the board.”