Jury fears future of Marin’s trash

05/23/2013

Unused paper plates, crumpled wrappers from long-gone hamburgers, a Starbucks cup, a cracked CD, tattered plastic bags: These were just some of the debris atop the roughly 17 million cubic yards of waste at the Redwood Landfill (RLI) in Novato, the contentious subject of a Marin Civil Grand Jury report released last week.

The watchdog’s report addressed the implications of an ongoing lawsuit against both the landfill and the county, in which an environmental group challenged RLI’s new permit, certified in 2008. That group, No Wetlands Landfill Expansion, alleged that the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) assessing plans for expansion did not fulfill state environmental requirements. 

The grand jury voiced support for the expansion plan, which would add six million cubic yards without increasing the landfill’s footprint. The plan would also allow for the conversion of methane—currently “flared,” or burned off—to energy that could power as many as 8,000 Marin homes.  

The county agency that enforces state waste requirements says the contested permit is “more protective of the environment” than a previous permit, approved in 1995. But Marin County Superior Court Judge Lynn Duryee in December agreed with the environmental group that the EIR was inadequate on seven of 11 counts. 

The alleged inadequacies included insufficient analyses of the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions, “non-cancer health risks” and air contaminants. The judge also concluded that the EIR deferred the creation of both a flood-control plan and an improved groundwater monitoring system until after the report was certified. The landfill is appealing on all seven of those counts. 

The grand jury report stokes fears that if RLI loses its appeal the landfill will not be able to proceed with the gas-to-energy plan, a construction-and-demolition recovery facility and an expanded composting operation, all of which are allowed by the 2008 permit. The landfill’s deputy manager, Dan North, said that RLI is moving forward on all three projects.

Marin has a “zero waste” goal of diverting 94 percent of waste from the landfill, and, based on its current diversion rate of around 75 percent, the grand jury estimated the landfill will last until almost 2050 with an expansion, or just another seven to nine years without. At zero waste an expanded landfill could last until just past 2070 and the current landfill until after 2040.

Critics of the grand jury report, such as Bruce Baum, a resident of both San Anselmo and Inverness and a co-chair of the group that filed suit, have called the report a one-sided discussion. “It’s very difficult to believe that the grand jury produced a report that reads like a promotional document for the waste industry,” he said in a phone interview with the Light, suggesting that it did just that.

Mr. Baum’s group points to the fact that the landfill is unlined, below sea level and in a tidal wetlands area. But Rebecca Ng, deputy director of Marin County Environmental Health Services, which regulates waste on behalf of the state, said the landfill was purposefully built near the water back in the 1950s to take advantage of bay mud, a thick layer of clay that Ms. Ng said acts as a natural liner. 

Mr. North said that although new landfills require plastic liners, there are tradeoffs because plastic can tear. He said once the plastic liner of a landfill in Sonoma County broke and RLI had to take the entire county’s trash for a time. “That’s like the nightmare scenario,” he said.

The grand jury’s support of methane-derived energy also drew Mr. Baum’s ire. 

Although methane has a far shorter atmospheric lifespan than carbon dioxide, because it traps heat more effectively, it has an impact over 20 times greater than carbon dioxide. The landfill currently has over 100 wells that collect the gas, and 3,000 cubic feet is flared every minute in two tall stacks, where it’s transformed into carbon dioxide and water. 

The Sierra Club’s California’s Energy-Climate Committee opposes methane gas-to-energy plants, arguing that companies, in an attempt to create more methane to turn into energy, add moisture to landfills. The Sierra Club believes such an approach can increase the methane that can escape into the atmosphere, since wells don’t capture 100 percent of the gas. Mr. North said RLI has no plans to rehydrate the landfill, but will instead attempt to remove moisture.

Mr. North added that methane levels are tracked assiduously by the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. 

The grand jury expressed repeated concerns about the prospect of having to haul waste out of the county if the landfill does not expand. “Marin will need to find another landfill, a problematic issue since county officials have stated that it will be impossible to find an alternate site within the county,” the report states. “Not finding an alternate site in Marin County means our trash becomes another county’s problem and increases our carbon footprint.” 

Judge Duryee also ruled that RLI did not adequately investigate the feasibility and environmental consequences of building a new landfill, as required by the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), stating that RLI needed “verifiable facts” and not “abstract or speculative conclusions” to determine a new landfill’s infeasibility. Mr. North frankly contended, “There will never be another landfill permitted in Marin County, and maybe even in California.” 

As for what will happen when the landfill meets its eventual end, the report recommends looking into plasma gasification. Both Mr. North and Mr. Baum said the technology, which obliterates waste and stores the gas in a tank, is prohibitively expensive, though Mr. North believes it could someday become more affordable and energy-efficient.

Mr. North said the EIR went above and beyond what was called for by CEQA by addressing climate change, such as sea-level rise, and is “not getting credit for doing extra credit.” 

In her December opinion, Judge Duryee wrote that especially given a levee failure in 2006 and RLI’s admission that constructing a higher levee on bay mud posed difficulties, the flood plan should have been “circulated during the EIR process, not afterwards.” Mr. North contends that CEQA allows for such deferrals if the EIR includes environmental mitigations with specific plans to improve the levees, which RLI says it did.

Ms. Ng also defended the EIR, stating, “This permit… is the first permit in the state, probably in country, to address greenhouse gases,” which she said the methane energy plant would accomplish with the energy offsets.

Mr. North said it was his understanding that if No Wetlands prevails in the appeal, the EIR may need to be repaired, but not scrapped—as suggested by the grand jury. But, he added, “From our perspective, we feel that the EIR was thorough in the first place.”

While they may disagree on the EIR, both Ms. Ng and Mr. Baum emphasized the problems of America’s throwaway culture and the need to remain vigilant about recycling, composting and reducing consumption. 

On a tour of the landfill this week, Mr. North lamented the fast-food wrappers with foil on one side and paper on the other, explaining that it’s quite difficult to recycle disparate materials “sandwiched” together. He also said the word “waste” itself is a misnomer, because of the energy that can be tapped in so much of what is discarded. 

He even has a plan for the invasive thistle spouting up all over the landfill: Goats will be brought in from a nearby ranch to eat the plant.