The Newspaper of the San Francisco Bay Chapter
March - April 2007
Potrero Hills Landfill expansion threatens Suisun Marsh, undermines Bay Area recycling
It could put a four-generation farming family out of business. It undermines the recycling programs of four Bay Area counties. It threatens 260 acres of grasslands, a creek, and the health of Suisun Marsh. It would displace a breeding pair of golden eagles and lay yet another straw on the stack pushing the Delta smelt, a small innocent fish, towards extinction. It's the Potrero Hills Landfill (PHLF), once a mom-and-pop dumplet, now a large and greedy corporate competitor in the Bay Area garbage industry.
The incredibly strong Suisun Marsh Preservation Act, you see, contains one big exception. In 1977, when the act was passed, the Solano Garbage Company already operated a solid-waste disposal site in the marsh's Secondary Management Area. This small, locally owned facility served only the central Solano County communities of Fairfield, Suisun City, and Rio Vista and rural environs. The dump, however, was running out of room for more garbage.
Of course, the county should have looked for a new site outside the marsh. Instead, when the county wrote the Local Protection Plan (LPP) for the marsh's Secondary Management Area (see sidebar), the county provided that the disposal site could be moved to another location in that Area - but only "if it can be shown that the construction and operation of such facilities will not have significant adverse ecological or aesthetic impacts on the Marsh. [`Marsh' here means both the marsh itself and its adjacent grasslands, i.e. the Secondary Management Area.]"
In 1982, when the Solano Garbage Company proposed moving to its present disposal site on 320 acres in the Potrero Hills in the Secondary Management Area, one might have expected some opposition. How, after all, could the destruction of 5% of the Potrero Hills' grasslands, as well as the culverting and rechannelization of Spring Branch Creek, not affect the ecology of the marsh?
The new disposal site, however, was advertised as serving only Solano County and as solving the county's garbage problem for many decades, and so county Supervisors had every reason to approve. It's a mystery why no environmental organization appealed the approval.
Several years later the facility was sold to Republic Services, a national waste-disposal company, and renamed as PHLF.
Republic, interested in profits, decided to expand the landfill's service area from Solano County to the entire Bay Area. It promoted this by charging lower fees to garbage companies. When a garbage company dumps its garbage, a significant element of the fee goes to the recycling, regulatory, and planning programs of the county from which the garbage came. A lower tipping fee generates less money for a county's environmental programs and leads to residents' generating more garbage.
PHLF is now getting 80 - 85% of its input from outside Solano County - from as far away as Gilroy and Santa Rosa, as well as other communities in Marin, San Mateo, Sacramento, Santa Clara, and Sonoma Counties. The gas consumption and increase in CO2 emissions from garbage trucks traveling such distances is substantial. Most of these garbage-exporters have ample closer-by alternative solid-waste facilities available.
With its increased service area, PHLF will fill its current site in 5 - 7 years. It has to either expand this site or look for a new location. (It could, of course, return to taking only Solano County garbage, but this would also reduce Republic's income stream.) In 2005 PHLF presented an Environmental Impact Report proposing to expand on-site by 260 acres.
This time, however, environmentalists and local residents, including the Sierra Club's Redwood Chapter, challenged the EIR, which amazingly concluded that destroying 260 acres of grasslands - altering a creek and its watershed - is not a significant ecological impact. The county Planning Commission rejected the EIR. Republic appealed to the Board of Supervisors, which voted 3 - 2, despite vocal opposition, to overturn the Planning Commission decision and approve the EIR and the permit for expansion.
Outraged, several individuals, an organization called Protect the Marsh, and the Northern California Recycling Association sued. A ruling is expected in early March. If the challenge is successful, the project will be ordered to redo its EIR, considering more accurately the ecological impacts of the project and a meaningful range of alternative sites. The Sierra Club is not a party to the lawsuit, but the Bay Chapter has given $2,500 to support it.
Some of the same parties plus a new organization SPRAWLDEF (the Sustainability, Parks, Recycling And Wildlife Legal Defense Fund) have also appealed the county's decision to the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), which has final permitting authority.
In a preliminary victory for the appellants, BCDC agreed that there were sufficient substantive arguments to justify hearing the appeal (this in itself required a Commission vote) and has assembled a Science Review Team to study whether the proposed expansion would result in a significant ecological impact. A first draft of the Team's report indicates to us that the project would indeed have significant ecological impacts that cannot be mitigated.
For example, the destruction of 260 acres of grassland habitat that supports a pair of foraging, breeding golden eagles as well as many other bird species is a pretty significant impact, and since there is no place in the Secondary Management Area where one can create new grasslands, how can you correct that harm? We hope BCDC agrees with us that you can't.
As described in the sidebar, the marsh sloughs fed by Spring Branch Creek provide important habitat for the fast-disappearing threatened Delta smelt. The landfill construction would cover 260 acres of the creek's watershed with an impermeable membrane, physically move the creek into a newly dug-out channel, drain it into detention basins, and then submerge it in culverts. We agree with the BCDC scientists that this drastic attack on the creek would undoubtedly affect the creek's rate of flow and water quality. Its temperature would be different, it would hold less oxygen and perhaps a different balance of nutrients, and it would be much less sustaining for fish populations. That would seem to be a significant environmental impact.
If BCDC agrees, as we think it must, then it will not be able to approve the landfill expansion. Then we can all breath a sigh of relief that one of our most precious natural areas has escaped one more threat to its health. And perhaps the Delta smelt will have a chance of survival.
We expect that answer some time this spring or summer.
Oh yes - and the four generations of farmers? In the Potrero Hills, partly overlooking the landfill and adjacent to the road approaching the landfill, is a 170-acre farm owned by June Guidotti. Her family has raised sheep and cattle there for four generations. She now suffers from landfill smells, litter (which can kill cattle that swallow plastic bags and then starve to death as the bags clog their guts), light, and noise. The Suisun Marsh Preservation Act and LPP say that the Secondary Management Area is dedicated to wildlife and agriculture. You wouldn't know it from the impacts of the landfill.
Get on our alert list so that we can notify you when it is time to write letters to help save the Potrero Hills grasslands and creeks. Contact or call (510) 848-0800
© 2007 San Francisco Sierra Club Yodeler
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