Monday, August 08, 2005

The Solano County Board of Supervisors will decide on Potrero Hills Landfill expanion

Article Last Updated: Saturday, Aug 06, 2005 - 09:38:52 pm PDT

Facing life beyond the local landfill

By Barry Eberling

- New York had a barge full of garbage famously wander along the Atlantic Ocean coast for several months in 1987 because no disposal site could be found.

Fairfield-Suisun is unlikely to ever have a garbage barge aimlessly traversing Suisun Bay. But should Potrero Hills Landfill close in eight to 10 years - as the landfill's owners warn will happen without expansion - local trash will have to go to a new resting place.

"We all generate waste and it has to go somewhere," said William Terry of Republic Services, the owner of the local Potrero Hills Landfill, at a recent public hearing.

The Solano County Board of Supervisors will decide whether Potrero Hills Landfill can expand and stave off closure in a decade. It meets at 6 p.m. Tuesday at the Solano County Government Center, 675 Texas St.

Should Fairfield-Suisun lose the dump in its back yard, it would want to find another nearby dump. Otherwise, it would no longer have some of the cheapest garbage bills in the region. Cities that export garbage have bills that are several dollars more.

Some people are concerned a bigger Potrero Hills dump might hurt environmentally sensitive Suisun Marsh. They dislike the potential pollution, truck traffic and blowing trash - especially given that a host of other communities within a 150-mile radius bring their garbage to Potrero Hills.

County supervisors must weigh the costs of losing the dump against the cost of keeping it.

The other dump

If Solano County loses Potrero Hills Landfill in a decade, it will still have a dump.

The Hay Road Landfill is a mountain of trash rising out of the rural flatlands near Highway 113. It takes trash from Vacaville and Dixon, as well as other communities. It is owned by Norcal Waste Systems.

Fairfield-Suisun could theoretically send its trash to Hay Road Landfill. Then it wouldn't have to pay fees for trucking trash to a distant locale.

Whether the dump in a decade would agree to take Fairfield-Suisun's garbage is a question. Donald Gambelin of Norcal said the Hay Road Landfill isn't precluded by space from taking more trash.

Hay Road Landfill recently got county permission to build up its trash hill from a maximum of 165 feet above sea level to 215 feet. Norcal officials said the dump has room to last 50 years.

The dump has county permission to receive 1,200 tons of garbage daily. It gets about 400 tons, Gambelin said.

"We're open to providing service to anyone that asks. That's our business," Gambelin said.

Should Potrero Hills Landfill close, Hay Road Landfill might be getting a lot of requests beyond Fairfield-Suisun. Out-of-county communities that use Potrero Hills would also be looking for a new dump. Deputy County Counsel James Laughlin knew of no way to force Hay Road Landfill to take local garbage, though he hadn't researched the issue.

Life beyond the local landfill

Fairfield-Suisun need not look far to see what shipping trash long-distance is like. Napa and Vallejo turned to this option when the American Canyon Landfill near the Napa River closed in 1995.

Creating a new dump proved too difficult because of community opposition and costly environmental laws. But the Napa-Vallejo Waste Management Authority had to do something with 600 tons of garbage a day.

"In 1993, it was very hard to find somebody and the prices were very high," said Trent Cave, the authority's manager.

The authority put the garbage on the rails. It shipped it by train to the Roosevelt landfill in the desert of southeastern Washington.

Within five years, rail haul grew expensive and regional dump prices became competitive. The authority began taking trash by truck to the Keller Landfill in Contra Costa County near Pittsburg.

Napa's contract with Keller Landfill expires in 2007. The authority is once again searching for a place to put garbage. It seems like 1993 again - dump space is harder to find, Cave said.

"It's a little tight in the North Bay," Cave said.

Life without a local dump also meant building a transfer station. Napa-Vallejo needed a place to consolidate garbage collected by local trucks and prepare it for shipping.

The authority built a $14 million transfer station near the Napa airport. It is kind of a temporary dump, where garbage stays briefly before hitting the road.

Building a transfer station took some planning.

"Nobody wants these sites," Cave said. "We had to pick a site out away from existing development and had to bring in a lot of infrastructure to service that location."

The cost of losing a dump

Shipping garbage elsewhere and building a transfer station came at a cost. Napa has higher garbage rates than Fairfield.

Fairfield residents with a 35-gallon trash container pay $12.80 a month, among the lowest prices in the Bay Area. Napa residents pay $19.53.

Cave couldn't say how much of the difference is due to Napa-Vallejo's garbage exportation.

"It's very difficult to separate out how much is the recycling cost and how much is the disposal costs," he said. But, he said, "If you don't have local capacity, then it costs you more money."

That premise is mirrored in other Bay Area communities.

Dublin in Alameda County offers 32-gallon carts to residents at $12.17 a month. It ships its trash about 15 miles to Altamont Landfill. It also looked at using the nearby Vasco Road Landfill.

Having dumps close at hand makes a difference in the garbage bill, said Dublin Senior Administrative Analyst Jason Behrmann.

"Because the landfills are so close to us, we don't have to use a transfer station," Behrmann said. "All of our garbage is directly hauled in garbage trucks out to the landfill. The cities that have got to use transfer stations see significant increases."

Oakland has access to the same dumps as Dublin, but is farther away and needs to operate a transfer center. The monthly garbage bill there for a 35-gallon cart is $24.82.

Fairfield City Manager Kevin O'Rourke had experience with garbage shipping and transfer stations during a previous job with a Southern California city. He agreed with the premise that exporting garbage costs more money.

That's why Fairfield is protected in its contract with Solano Garbage Co., O'Rourke said. That contract, which lasts into November 2012, designates Potrero Hills as the disposal site for city garbage. Republic Services owns both Potrero Hills Landfill and Solano Garbage.

Beyond 2012, though, the city is vulnerable to higher rates should Potrero Hills Landfill close and local garbage hits the road for another dump.

There are other costs that could come with the closure of Potrero Hills Landfill.

The community would have to find some place else to ship its treated sewage sludge. The local treatment plant produces about two semi-truckloads of sludge daily. This sludge gets trucked about four miles to Potrero Hills Landfill.

Losing Potrero Hills Landfill could raise the cost of sludge disposal from less than $300,000 annually to more than $1.5 million, said Larry Bahr of the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District.

Also, Solano County charges a tax on garbage coming into Potrero Hills Landfill. Landfill owners said the dump brings the county $4 million annually.

If Potrero Hills closes, the county loses this tax money, much of which is generated from communities in other counties.

The cost of expanding

Lawler Ranch resident Dwight Acey opposes the Potrero Hills Landfill expansion. If taking the garbage elsewhere means a few more bucks on his garbage bill, he's willing to pay.

He sees a bigger dump possibly causing an array of problems, from more asthma cases for citizens to pollution possibly getting into Suisun Marsh. The state Department of Fish and Game calls Suisun Marsh the largest contiguous estuarine marsh in the United States.

"We need to add all the variables and look at what the real cost is," Acey said.

In Acey's view, there are hidden costs to expanding the dump that won't show up on the garbage bills, but will still be paid for by residents.

Acey would like to retain more of the dump's remaining capacity for Solano County residents.

He'd like the county to raise the fees for other communities that bring trash to Potrero Hills Landfill. That might discourage them from shipping trash here. Slowing down the trash importation rate would extend the dump's lifespan to serve Fairfield-Suisun without expansion.

But the county sees legal difficulties. Laughlin concluded that the county cannot impose higher fees only on out-of-county waste, any more than it can stop Potrero Hills from accepting out-of-county waste.

Acey is also looking at "zero waste" ideas. "Zero waste" is a movement to lessen the amount of garbage going to dumps through recycling and not manufacturing the garbage in the first place.

Less waste means Potrero Hills dump would fill up more slowly. It also could hold down costs on garbage exportation, should Fairfield-Suisun ultimately go that route, because there would be less trash to ship.

"There needs to be a will do to it, to reduce the amount of waste we send to the landfill," Acey said.

If Solano County supervisors reject the expansion, that's not necessarily the final word. Republic Services could resubmit its application after a half-year.

Still, even though the dump has enough room for at least eight years, time is getting short, dump owners said. Republic Services must get a variety of permits from other agencies for the expansion.

"In landfill terms, seven years is a very short amount of time," said Will Flower of Republic Services. "We are now starting to reach the critical path.

"Although it sounds like a lot of time, it is very important that action be taken today."

Supervisors will take action soon. They will decide whether to allow Potrero Hills Landfill to expand or perhaps put it on the path to closure.

Reach Barry Eberling at 425-4646 Ext. 232 or at

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