Tale of two landfills - Page 2

With a pair of giant corporations vying for control of San Francisco's trash, will our zero waste dreams ever become a reality?

San Francisco has trucked its trash to the Altamont landfill since 1987

Mark Westlund of the Department of Environment told the Guardian that negotiations between the city and Recology are continuing and the contract bids remain under seal. "Hopefully they'll be concluded in the near future," Westlund said. "I can't pinpoint an exact date because the deal is still being fleshed out, but some time this summer."

Under the tentative plan, Recology's trucks would haul San Francisco's trash across the Bay Bridge to Oakland, where the garbage would be loaded onto trains three times a week and hauled to Wheatland. Recology claims its proposal is better for the environment and the economy because it takes trucks off the road and removes organic matter from the waste before it reaches the landfill and turns into methane gas.

But WM officials reject the claim, noting that both facilities will convert methane to electricity, energy now used to fuel the trucks going to Altamont. The landfill produces 8.5 MW of electricity annually, some of which is converted into 4.7 million gallons of liquid natural gas used by 300 trucks. The Ostrom Road facility would produce far less methane, using it to create 1.5 MW of electricity annually.

Recology officials say removing organic matter to produce less methane is an environmental plus because much of the methane from Altamont escapes into the atmosphere and adds to global warming, although WM claims to capture 90 percent of it. Yet David Assman, deputy director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, doesn't believe WM figures, telling us that they are "not realistic or feasible."

State and federal environmental officials say about a quarter of the methane gas produced in landfills ends up in the atmosphere. "But they acknowledge that this is an average. Some landfills can be worse, others much better if they have a good design. And there is no company that has done as much work on this as Waste Management," company spokesperson Chuck White told us, citing WM-sponsored studies indicating a methane capture rate as high as 92 percent. "The idea of 90 percent capture of methane is very credible if you are running a good operation."

Ken Lewis, director of WM's landfills, said the facility's use of methane to cleanly power its trucks has been glossed over in the debate over this contract. "We're just tapping into the natural carbon cycle," Lewis told us.

But Recology spokesperson Adam Alberti (who works for Singer & Associates, San Francisco's premier crisis communications firm) counters that it's better to avoid producing methane in the first place because some of it escapes and adds to global warming, which Recology claims it will do by sorting the waste, in the process creating green jobs in the organics recycling and reducing the danger of the gases leaking or even exploding.

"But what has Recology done to show us that the capture rate at their Ostrom landfill is on the high side?" Lewis asks. "Folks in San Francisco say it's not possible, but we've got published reports."

Assman admits that San Francisco won't be able to ensure that other municipalities that use Ostrom Road will be focusing on organics recycling. While questions remain about how that facility will ultimately handle a massive influx of garbage, Altamont has been housing the Bay Area's trash for decades. And even though San Francisco's current contract will expire by 2015, this sprawling facility nestled in remote hillsides can still handle more trash for decades to come.



Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Altamont landfill is the 30-foot-tall fence that sits on a ridge on the perimeter of the facility. It's covered with plastic bags that have escaped the landfill and rolled like demonic tumbleweeds along what looks like a desolate moonscape.

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