Talkin’ Trash


Why should anyone stop Sonoma County supervisors from selling a smelly dump for a few fragrant million in garbage royalties? Because the sale removes policy control from citizens and sells it to a corporation. I asked sustainability consultant Ken Wells, who managed Sonoma County’s integrated waste from 1992 to 2008, to explain the sale of Mecham Road landfill and its satellite drop-off points to Republic Services of Phoenix, an Arizona-based company. Turns out this proposed deal, up for a vote on Sept. 29, is a stinker. Sonoma County’s proposed sale brings in a corporation that determines fees for garbage service, how recycling is done and the degree to which waste reduction occurs. It places Sonoma County ratepayers, and the community’s waste-reduction goals, at the mercy of a corporation.

“There’s good news and bad news,” Wells explains. “The good news is that Republic is offering the county and the cities a place to take our garbage for the next 20 years. The sales pitch from the county is that you don’t have to worry about what your rates are going to be for those 20 years either, and that when the landfill reaches capacity, the hefty expense and logistics of capping it off, known as closure liability, will be taken care of by Republic.”

In exchange, the county is offering Republic ownership of the waste system, including drop-off sites (called transfer stations) at Guerneville, Annapolis, Healdsburg and Sonoma, plus the management of the landfill. “The economics of this deal is what the county hasn’t been telling us,” Wells says. “They have not been talking about the assets.” The first asset is called flow control; all the cities and the unincorporated areas have the authority to tell the haulers where to take the trash. Altogether, this flow control is worth about $30 million annually. “You can get loans based on that income,” Wells explains. “Part of the deal is that the cities are supposed to sign a contract to guarantee Republic this flow of $30 million per year gross for 20 years.”The second asset is county income. “For garbage delivered to the landfill,” Wells says, “the county gets $9 per ton. One other part of the deal that is causing everyone a lot of heartburn is called ‘put or pay.’ Republic wants to insure a minimum profit, so 70 percent of our base year is paid for whether we produce it or not. If we drop to 60 percent, we pay 70 percent. It looks like Republic will get a minimum guaranteed profit of $100 million in the first 20 years, maybe sooner, if they can collect garbage from out of the county.” How could Republic make all those millions putting trash in our closed landfill? “There are actually 9 million cubic yards of capacity at the landfill, which would serve the county easily for the next 20 years,” Wells says. “The only reason we’re not putting more garbage in the landfill is that the Regional Water Quality Control Board has restricted expansion permits. If Republic can convince the RWQCB to reopen Mecham Road, they can make an overlap of $600 million if they can fill it up at $100 per ton.”Wells says the RWQCB used the leaky liner as an excuse to shut down Mecham Road largely because the county was not able to develop a working relationship with the board or to gain the trust and cooperation of the cities.”

There is a win-win alternative to what the supervisors are proposing. “Instead of selling, the county and the cities could band together and create a joint powers agency with shared control and ownership of waste assets and liabilities. And this agency already exists,” Wells says. “It’s the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency with city-county memberships and the ideal location for this responsibility. This agency can retain our flow-control assets, from which we can get the loans for the liabilities and expansion of the landfill. We would contract out the services to private operators but retain control of the policies.” Policy-making belongs to the people, Wells warns, and should never be sold.