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11.04.09

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Un-Done Deal

A brief history of Sonoma County's dirty dealings with the dump

By Bruce Robinson

Freshman Sonoma County Supervisor Efren Carrillo may have surprised his colleagues and numerous other observers with his vote against the proposed "divestiture" of the county dump on Oct. 27, but he also did them a favor. Even if the full board had unanimously and enthusiastically embraced the 20-year, multibillion dollar deal with Arizona's Republic Services, the pact had a snowball's chance in Phoenix of actually going through.

Getting the county's approval would have been the easiest of the three steps needed to move it forward. Fulfillment of that contract also depended on getting most of the cities within Sonoma County to buy into it, as well as Republic's presumed ability to win the support of state water regulators to allow the private firm to reactivate the dormant landfill.

Neither is anywhere close to a given, and both have been given short shrift up to now.

At the public landfill forum in Santa Rosa last March, it was clear that Santa Rosa and other essential municipal players were not in the loop as the county's process crept forward, and were reluctant to make any meaningful commitment to participating in the deal when it was done. Yet the hard truth is that any plan the county pursues will depend on having a bankable stream of debris coming in, because trash flow equals cash flow when it comes to securing financing. And to elevate the numbers enough to take on the challenges posed by the Meacham Road facility, the county needs considerably more than the rubbish hauled in from the unincorporated areas.

But they have done precious little to build support for that. Although he had briefed some local city managers about the emerging divestiture deal, county Public Works director Phil Demery admitted to the board last week, "We have not had direct contact with city elected officials." But those council members have been hearing from their constituents, one reason that four of them—from Windsor, Santa Rosa, Healdsburg and Petaluma—each publicly questioned the proposal Tuesday.

With a possible joint powers agreement as one of the remaining possibilities for the future management of the county dumpsite, it would seem that an overdue overture to their probable municipal partners should now be a priority.

But at least they have interests that align, unlike the state's water regulators. A contentious Oct. 23 letter from the California Integrated Waste Management Board, demanding that "divestiture must proceed this year or the site must close," provided a bitter subtext to the board's meeting on the 27th. That letter, characterized by several critics as "bullying," had actually been requested by county staff, Demery said, to clarify the state's stance.

This is just the most recent in a lengthy, unfortunate series of confrontational communications about the dump dating back to the discovery in May 2003 of a small amount of "leachate" between layers of the liner beneath the garbage. The problem was promptly repaired, and none of the contaminate escaped into the surrounding groundwater, but the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board called for costly remediation measures. Rather than seek a compromise, the county retained a "flamethrower" attorney to fight the requirement, whereupon positions hardened, the stakes escalated and the county, ultimately, lost. Significantly, other counties elsewhere, with similar issues, have found ways to work with regulators to keep their landfills operational.

But Sonoma County got slapped down hard, and the resultant costs—environmental as well as economic—have been mounting ever since.

Underlying each aspect of this sorry story is an unfortunate aura of administrative arrogance. Had the county built an effective and collegial team with local cities, a united front might have formed the basis for effective negotiations around mitigation measures to protect groundwater around the dump. But even after that window of opportunity had long since closed, key county bureaucrats persisted in the go-it-alone, take-it-or-leave-it approach that brought them—and us—to the present predicament.

Hubris has dug this hole, and as the late Molly Ivins repeatedly reminded us, the First Law of Holes is: stop digging. In its dealings with both its neighbors and its nemeses, the county history in this matter shows decided deficits in respectful communication and a genuine desire for collaborative solutions. Maybe, even now, it's not too late to give them a try.


Bruce Robinson is the news director for KRCB public radio and television, 91.1-FM and channel 22, respectively.

 

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