Officials ignore garbage dump law

December 19, 2008 10:28:49 AM PST
What if voters passed a law and the government ignored it? That's what's happening in Solano County. Now 24 years after the law passed, it's become part of a battle over the future of a garbage dump.

The dump is the Potrero Hills landfill near Fairfield and right next to the protected Suisun Marsh. It one of the biggest landfills in the Bay Area and appears to have gotten that way by violating the will of the voters.

The trucks roll in, the garbage rolls out 20 hours a day at the Potrero Hills landfill in Solano County. Last year, the dump took in more than a million tons of garbage.

Now Potrero Hills' owner wants to expand. The company has applied for a permit to make the landfill four times bigger than it is now. They showed ABC7 News the valley where they would expand.

On the other side of the hill is the Suisun Marsh, protected wetlands, critical to the San Francisco Bay and Delta eco-systems.

Environmentalists have been fighting the landfill expansion, and while they were doing their research, they found something they didn't expect.

"In 1984, an initiative by the voters of Solano County by 68.7 percent approved Measure E," said recycling activist David Tam.

Measure E is supposed to limit the total amount of trash brought into Solano County -- no more than 95,000 tons a year.

But that's not what's happening. Last year, the Potrero Hills landfill took in nine times the limit voters approved.

"The will of the voters was flouted," said Tam.

Tam is a recycling activist with an organization called Sustainability of Parks, Recycling and Wildlife Legal Defense Fund -- better known as "SPRAWL-DEF."

He says after voters passed the garbage limit 24 years ago, the county never enforced it. So, little by little Potrero Hills was transformed into a regional landfill.

Last year, 85 percent of the waste dumped there came from out of the county. Now SPRAWL-DEF and the Northern California Recycling Association are suing the landfill. But the owner claims Measure E is not the landfill's problem.

"We're not the county, we are a private company. We don't believe it pertains to us, we don't think the lawsuit has any real merit or any real standing," said Republic Services Area President Kevin Finn.

In addition to the landfill, SPRAWL-DEF is expected to sue Solano County too. The attorney for the county won't comment until he's seen the lawsuit, although, one supervisor told ABC7 News he believes measure e is unconstitutional because it restricts commerce.

"If that's permitted you can imagine what that would lead to. I mean that would really impact local business or business in Solano County. You know you can't start picking and choosing what's going to come across county lines," said Solano County Supervisor Jim Spering.

But another Solano County supervisor wants to see Measure E enforced.

"Absolutely, why should Solano be the dumping ground for the rest of the bay area? People - these communities should take responsibility for their own waste," said Solano County Supervisor Barbara Kondylis

ABC7'S legal analyst Dean Johnson thinks the measure may be unconstitutional, but the county still can't ignore the voters.

"The county allowed the measure to fall through the cracks. They allowed over a period of about two decades for a non-complying practice to emerge and to continue, without making a decision and that really shouldn't happen," said Johnson.

Why is Potrero Hills getting so much trash from outside Solano County? Critics say because it's cheap. Low rates encourage dumping rather than recycling.

Jo Zientek is with the city of San Jose Environmental Services.

"It makes a significantly cheaper option to recycling available in the bay area and about ten percent of our total garbage generated in our city is going to the landfill in Solano County," said Zientek

State records show about 15 percent of the garbage at Potrero Hills last year came from Solano County. Forty percent came from Contra Costa County and the rest from 21 other counties.

Trucking trash those long distances may be hard on the environment, but it's a big money maker for the county.

Solano took in an estimated $4 million last year in taxes on out of county waste. If measure e is enforced, it might be better for the environment, but hard on the budget.

Other counties will be watching to see what happens with Measure E.

A lot of them would like to have more control over how much garbage flows in and out of their counties. But first, they have to figure out what's legal.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.


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