SF's trash train plan could save the city millions


San Francisco has the best recycling rate in the country, but it still produces more than 1,000 tons of garbage every day. The city does not have its own dump, so the trash goes to the Altamont Landfill in Livermore.

That dump contract ends in about five years. Waste Management, the company that owns the landfill, bid on a new contract, but another company beat them with a bid that was less than half the cost.

"It is good for rate payers, it's much better economically and secondarily it's better for the environment," San Francisco Department of the Environment Director Melanie Nutter said.

The low bidder is Recology, which already picks up city garbage. Instead of trucking it 60 miles to their competitor's landfill, they plan to cut costs by taking it to Oakland and then sending it by train 120 miles to their own much cheaper landfill near Wheatland in Yuba County.

But the new contract is not a done deal. It still has to be approved by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. And in Yuba County, many farmers who live near the landfill are fighting the plan.

"I don't understand why we should be responsible for the waste disposal of other regions and assuming all the risk of the potential environmental contamination," farmer Steve de Valentine said.

San Francisco trash would more than double the amount of garbage going into the landfill. Recology says it is a state of the art facility with a multi-layer lining system and elaborate monitoring systems, so there is very little risk.

But there is a wetlands and a slough right next to the landfill and the water runs downstream on to Bill Middleton's walnut farm.

"This is the watershed, this is where the water comes for the valley, down off the Sierra and I'm afraid it's going to contaminate our water," Middleton said.

Yuba County supervisors are divided about the plan. The landfill already has a permit to bring in more trash and Supervisor John Nicoletti says it is a well run operation.

"They have the right and authority to bring the trash from Nebraska, much less San Francisco, if it made sense economically," Nicoletti said.

But Supervisor Roger Abe is leery of taking more garbage.

"Because at some point the landfill when it gets full, then Yuba-Sutter residents will have to search for an alternate site to take their garbage," Abe said.

A spokesperson for Recology says the landfill will still have 60 years of capacity left, even with San Francisco's garbage. And they are doing everything they can to protect the environment.

"The benefit to Yuba County -- increased fees, tens of millions of dollars -- will offset any environmental impact that could be imagined," Recology spokesman Adam Alberti said.

Another attack on the trash train idea is coming from the San Francisco Bay Sierra Club. It says there are still too many unknowns and wants the project re-bid.

"There'll be impacts from hundreds of train cars going through the city of Wheatland that need to be identified; there's watershed issues up there, wetland issues, habitat issues," Sierra Club spokesperson Glenn Kirby said.

Another impact is lost money. As it stands, every time San Francisco trash is dumped in Livermore at the Altamont Landfill a court settlement requires the owner of the landfill pay into a fund to buy open space in Alameda County -- $12 million so far. But if city trash stops coming, so does the money.

"Open space acquisition is important, if we lose this fund, we will have to find other ways to save property in the county," Kirby said.

Besides picking up San Francisco garbage, Recology also runs the city's extremely successful recycling program. That is going so well, city officials hope the new 10-year dump contract will be the last. They are committed to zero waste by the year 2020.

Waste Management told ABC7 if they do get a chance to re-bid the contract they will propose using trucks powered by natural gas, which they claim will be even better for the environment than the train proposal. Either way customers' rates will go up; the question is: how much?

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney

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