Trash talk

Where's the city's garbage going next? Nobody knows


The fate of the city's mountains of garbage — 1,400 tons a day — will be decided some time in the next few months. Maybe.

Two competing proposals for hauling away the trash have been up for consideration since last spring. But the San Francisco Board of Supervisors still doesn't seem to know which alternative is better, and the board still hasn't scheduled a hearing on the issue.

Waste Management Inc. has the current contract and trucks waste to the Altamont landfill. Recology now wants to ship the garbage by rail three times as far away, to the company's Ostrom Road landfill in Yuba County ("A Tale of Two Landfills," 06/15/10).

David Assmann, deputy director of San Francisco's Department of the Environment told the Guardian that his department asked for a hearing in October on its proposal to award the contract to Recology when the city's contract at Altamont landfill expires in 2015.

"But that hearing request got delayed," Assmann said. "With a new board, new committees, and maybe new chairs of committees coming in January, I'm not sure when the hearing will take place," he added. "But I'd be surprised if it's before Jan. 15."

Sup. David Campos told the Guardian he still has many questions about the contract. "I don't know if it's the correct way to go at this point," he said. "I'm trying to figure it out."

That sentiment seems to be shared by Sups. John Avalos and Eric Mar, who took a road trip earlier this year to see both landfills. And some local waste management experts have suggested that Recology's plan would be greener if the city barged its trash to Oakland, then loaded it onto trains, instead of driving it across the Bay Bridge.

Assmann acknowledged that the barging question keeps coming up, but said would be cost prohibitive since trash would have to be loaded and unloaded both sides of the bay. "It would be horrendously expensive, so it's not a likely option unless folks want their rates to go up dramatically."

And now Yuba County officials are rethinking how much to charge the city to dump it waste in their rural county's backyard. Yuba County Supervisor Roger Abe told the Guardian his board has asked the county administrator to look into the process for raising disposal fees at Ostrom Road.

"We're supposed to receive a report on that, plus parameters on what you can change," Abe said, noting that fees at Ostrom Road were set at $4.40 per ton in 1996. "So it's a 14-year-old fee. Clearly, the cost of living is a lot higher now. And when the landfill was established, it was only serving Yuba County. But now it's being touted as a regional landfill, an approach that is depleting our county's ability to dispose of its own trash. So if people outside the county are using our landfill, they should be paying more."

But Assmann doesn't think the rate hikes would torpedo the city's plan. "Whichever one of the two landfills is chosen can always opt to raise fees. But that would also impact the fees of local residents, so it's a self-inhibiting factor," he said.

"And who knows the implications of Prop. 26 on this," he continued, referring to the statewide proposition voters approved in November that requires a two-thirds supermajority vote in the state Legislature and at the ballot box in local communities to pass fees, levies, charges, and tax revenue allocations that previously could be enacted with a simple majority vote.

"But even if the fees double in Yuba County, they'll still be less expensive that at Altamont," he said. "So our recommendation is to go forward with the Ostrom Road landfill proposal."