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Landfill at Edge of Bay Pits Environmentalists Against Waste Hauler

A large landfill south of Petaluma touts its waste diversion and recycling programs. But opponents say the entire site is dangerous because it's in a marsh and prone to flooding

Swans, egrets and other birds are easy to spot in San Antonio Creek as it winds through northern Marin and joins the Petaluma River and eventually the San Pablo Bay.

These wetlands south of Petaluma are home to dozens of species of birds and fish, and the largest saltwater marsh on the West Coast.

But just steps from the water is a landfill where up to 600 tons of trash is dropped off each day. Put another way, that’s 25 big rigs full of garbage, brought in from Marin and southern Sonoma counties. (Petaluma's trash is brought here.)

Not surprisingly, Redwood Landfill is quickly filling up, prompting plans to expand operations by 50 percent.

It’s an effort that’s been in the works since 1998 and was approved by CalRecycle, the state recycling agency in 2008. But Redwood’s plans to increase garbage intake have been stalled by a lawsuit, filed by a community group four years ago.

“This is a 1950s-era unlined landfill that is located on the largest tidal marsh on the West Coast,” says Brent Newell, one of the attorneys for No Wetlands Landfill Expansion, a North Bay group opposed to the project, and the legal director at the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco.

“The landfill is literally in the marsh, the bottom of which is five feet below sea level,” says Newell. “There is no doubt that global warming is occurring and that sea levels will rise in the future. The question for Marin County is ‘Is it appropriate policy to put more garbage in a place where we’re going to have rising sea levels and increased flooding?’ No, it’s not.”

Redwood is owned by Houston-based Waste Management, the largest waste disposal company in the United States. It is also working on several waste diversion and alternative energy projects at the site, including a plant that would convert methane from garbage into energy and then sold to consumers, and a recycling facility for construction materials.

But these plans are in jeopardy, especially since a Marin County judge rejected an environmental document for the expansion last December, arguing that it failed to fully analyze the impact of greenhouse gas emissions and health impacts such as acute respiratory infections, chronic bronchitis and asthma.

Waste Management has appealed the ruling and says opponents simply want to export their garbage out of the area.

“This is a highly regulated site with a lot of reporting and a lot of verification going on every single day,” said Osha Meserve, an attorney representing Waste Management.

“The fears that have been expressed by the petitioners are just that, they are not founded on any fact and we think they are probably based more on NIMBYism in that they would rather see their waste go to other locations than keep the waste locally.”

The landfill is working to bring down its greenhouse gas emissions to pre-1990 stands and has two levees that can be raised as needed, according to Meserve. And there is no alternate site for the garbage, meaning it would have to be trucked to another county, increasing emissions and possibly rates.

Dan North is the district manager at Redwood and says the landfill has worked hard to create an operation tailored to the green future Marin leaders have envisioned.

“The county has set forth a zero waste goal by 2025 and we need to support that goal,” he said. “So it’s not just about the expansion of the landfill, which is a service that is demanded by our customers, but it’s also augmenting it with more recycling and more diversion.”

But opponents insist another site be found. They say Waste Management has plans to take in garbage from beyond Marin and Sonoma counties and is luring business by keeping prices low.

They also point out that the landfill is surrounded by levees on three sides and that there are former stream channels underneath that make it easy for groundwater to get contaminated during high tides.

“Plenty of Marin County residents drive Priuses and profess to be environmentalists,” said Brent Newell, the attorney for the group opposing the expansion. “There is no reason they shouldn’t support to pay a couple of dollars more for the proper handling of their garbage.”

The case is now in appellate court and expected to be heard sometime in the next year.

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