The owner of a fertilizer yard located next to the Petaluma River is in a dispute with the county that has dragged on for more than six years, complete with lawsuits, countless fines and orders to shut down the operation.
Earlier this year, on Corona Road, petitioned the county for a use permit that would allow it to process up to 150,000 cubic yards of manure, straw, produce and other biodegradable materials.
The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors was set to decide whether to grant the application this week, but continued the vote to April 10, while telling Livestock Auction Yard to pay $9,000 in outstanding fees.
It was the latest chapter in a saga that began in 2005 when neighbors complained about strong odors coming from the cattle yard along with high piles of manure and increased heavy machinery.
That’s because that year, yard owner Manuel Brazil, brought in local company Greenko Inc. to expand the composting operation that accepted manure from other facilities, then sold the resulting compost, according to a lawsuit Sonoma County filed against Brazil and Greenko owner Lawrence Johnson in 2006.
The county won and Petaluma Live Auction Yard was ordered to cease operations. Despite the ruling, Johnson submitted an application for a use permit in December 2006, but the county deemed it incomplete because it lacked detail about how the company planned to dispose wastewater and not contaminate surface and groundwater supplies, says Melinda Grosch, a project planner with the Sonoma County Permit and Resource Management Department.
“They never provided us the studies to prove they wouldn’t be vulnerable to overtopping during flooding, leeching of waste and did not conduct any testing of the septic system,” Grosch says.
Then in 2007, California Sportfishing Protection Alliance , an environmental group, sued on grounds that the composting facility was discharging pollutants from an industrial facility in violation of the federal Clean Water Act.
They won, forcing Petaluma Livestock Auction and Greenko to pay fees and penalties and cease operations.
“Manure is not clean, but has really high nitrates and nutrients in it,” said Andrew Packard, a Petaluma environmental attorney who represented the plaintiffs. “He (Johnson) may swear up and down that it’s all clean and organic, but not according to the federal Clean Water Act.”
But ask Johnson, who runs the composting facility, about why the dispute has dragged on for so long and he’ll be quick to describe the nightmarish bureaucracy imposed on him by the county.
“This is a historical site that has always had compost on it,” says Lawrence, adding that the business has been in operation since 1948 and is the last livestock auction yard in five surrounding counties. “We’re trying to follow the mandate of the state, but the county keeps adding more things to the application, then asking us to complete it in 30 days.”
Johnson says the company has moved berms further away from the river and has scaled back their operations to what is “historically permitted.” He adds that he's offered to build a roof to trap the gases coming off the compost materials, but the county didn’t allow it.
“Compost to me is all natural and all organic, there is no chemicals added to it,” Johnson said. “This isn’t fertilizer. The county doesn’t understand compost and they think we are trying to be sneaky. We care about the community because we have to live here too. Give me a shot to do the right thing and I will do it.”
So just why has the back and forth dragged on for so long?
Grosch, of the county's permitting department, says it's because the company continues to submit applications for a permit, which are denied (usually because they are incomplete), and then files appeal after appeal.
“It has been a continuous string of incomplete applications,” Grosch said. “They know how to play the game and have extended the process for much longer that it usually takes.”
Should the county shut down the facility? Grant them a use permit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.