Competition for Your Food Waste 

The county waste authority wants to build a new landfill for compost waste, but it faces a competitive effort from the for-profit Waste Management.

Tens of thousands of Oakland residents have begun mixing their food scraps and soiled paper with yard clippings in the past two months. The new curbside program marked the city's entrance into the cutting-edge world of mixed-waste composting. Several other Alameda County cities recently have launched similar efforts, and a half-dozen more are expected to follow suit in the next twelve months. Though these programs are hailed by environmentalists, they share one significant problem: There are no facilities in the county authorized to accept the new mixed green waste.

For years, yard trimmings were composted separately, or used in Alameda County to cover the privately owned Altamont landfill each week as a way to keep the mounds of garbage from spoiling the surrounding environs. But adding food waste creates all sorts of grimy problems, especially rotting meat, which attracts rats and other disease vectors. It's also illegal to spread food compost on top of landfills.

As a result, the table scraps and yard clippings from environmentally-minded Oaklanders now are being hauled to Vernalis, a small community outside Modesto that is home to one of the few compost facilities in the state permitted to handle food waste. The Alameda County Waste Management Authority, a joint-powers board made up of cities and unincorporated areas, wants to change that, reasoning that it's environmentally irresponsible for East Bay cities to dump their compost waste in the Central Valley. "The question is: Shouldn't we be dealing with the impacts created by our society?" said Brian Matthews, a program manager for the authority.

The authority has adopted a plan to build a large mixed-waste composting facility inside the county. But now that plan is facing stiff opposition from an unlikely consortium of environmentalists, doctors, NIMBYs, and wannabe developers. Keeping close tabs on the entire controversy is the nation's largest trash hauler and a well-known Oakland political operative it hired. They have their own ideas for what to do with the new and potentially profitable mixed waste.

Nearly fifteen years ago, Alameda County voters established an ambitious environmental goal. They approved Measure D, a countywide plan to divert three-quarters of the waste that ends up in landfills to recycling and composting programs. Curbside pickup of bottles, cans, paper, and yard clippings has pushed the diversion rate to above 50 percent, but attaining the 75 percent mark has proven difficult. Cities realized that they had to do something about the single largest category of landfill waste -- discarded food, which represents 12 percent of all the garbage in the nation's landfills.

As cities began hatching plans for food composting, the waste authority issued requests for proposals to build a local facility. Employees received what they considered to be two viable offers. One was from a private group that proposed building a large composting facility in Sunol. The other was from Waste Management Inc., which said it wanted to construct a compost facility next to its Altamont landfill outside Livermore.

But when negotiations got serious, Waste Management officials reneged on a key point of their handshake deal with the waste authority. Waste-authority employees made it clear that because $5.5 million in public funds were to be used for the new facility, the authority would get the final say on the rates charged to drop off compost there. That way, all haulers, private and public, would pay equitable prices. But Waste Management officials decided they wanted the last word on rates, so that the Texas-based giant could give its established customers better deals than the general public.

The waste authority immediately rejected Waste Management's new terms and began focusing on the Sunol proposal. Late last year, the authority published a draft-environmental impact report that detailed the true magnitude of the planned facility. It would be forty acres in size and would handle up to six hundred tons of mixed-waste compost a day.

Sunolians have a long history of fighting off development. Their folksy, bucolic town, nestled in an oak-studded valley between Fremont and Pleasanton, presents a stark contrast to the tract homes and strip malls of neighboring cities. So it was unsurprising that residents opposed the compost facility right away. "It's not that we're against composting," said Pat Stillman, the unquestioned leading opponent of Sunol development of any kind. "It's just that it's an inappropriate spot for a compost dump. It's right near a number of residences."

Waste-authority employees expected the Sunol residents' opposition, but didn't expect to hear from a group of doctors and top officials at Washington Hospital in Fremont. Hospital CEO Nancy Farber and board member Dr. William Nicholson believe the compost facility could pose a serious health hazard. Farber and Nicholson, who also happen to live in Sunol, warn that airborne bacteria and fungi from the outdoor facility may harm local residents and nearby schoolchildren. "When you've got six hundred tons a day being turned over, my concern is that you're going to spill all of these materials into the air," said Nicholson, citing a recent German study that suggested residents close to a composting facility are a greater risk for respiratory disease. Some Bay Area environmentalists, including the Bay Chapter of the Sierra Club, also oppose the location of the facility, saying it should be placed far away from homes and schools.

But perhaps the biggest surprise to authority staffers is that the environmentalists, doctors, and Sunol residents have forged an unholy alliance with several large landowners who have tried to develop 1,100 acres of property off nearby Sheridan Road. Area voters have foiled the tract-home development plans on two occasions. But despite the ballot-box setbacks, the landowners' development hopes are not completely dead, and they certainly don't want a stinky, rodent-attracting compost facility built next door. "Our property values will go down the tubes," said Paul Mackin, who owns 85 acres of land, the closest of which is a half-mile from the proposed facility. Stillman acknowledged that partnering with the Sheridan Road landowners was unlikely for her and other antigrowth Sunolians.

"We're not bosom buddies," she said. "And I would certainly be against any development plans they may have coming down the road."

But those future disagreements didn't stop the compost-facility opponents from chartering a bus in late January and storming an authority meeting at its San Leandro headquarters. Authority members were caught off guard because the facility was not on their agenda. But among those who were not surprised were officials from Waste Management and from the political consulting firm owned by Larry Tramutola, who is best known in Oakland circles for running hard-nosed, negative political campaigns.

David Tucker, a spokesman for Waste Management, acknowledged that the company now plans to build its own composting facility next to the Altamont landfill -- without public funds. He also admitted that Waste Management will be in direct competition with the Sunol facility if it is built, and added that Waste Management may not be able to charge the public higher rates if they can just take their mixed compost to Sunol.

Tucker maintained that Waste Management does not officially oppose the Sunol facility -- but that didn't stop him from showing up at the January authority meeting with Bonnie Moss, a top Tramutola lieutenant. Both acknowledged that Tramutola was working for Waste Management, but denied rumors that he is being paid to mount a campaign against the Sunol proposal. They would not say why he had been hired. Moss said simply that they had attended the January meeting because she had heard that Sunol opponents were going to be there and they merely wanted to observe.

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