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Exporting Sonoma Compost A Tragic Contradiction

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 Exporting Sonoma Compost

A Tragic Contradiction

By Pam Davis, General Manager of Sonoma Compost

Sonoma County’s regional compost facility is set to be shut down by mid-October, leaving Sonoma County farmers, the landscape community, and backyard gardeners scrambling to fill their needs for quality organic soil amendments needed for their operations.

Sonoma Compost Company has been an environmental leader in the community for nearly 25 years. Asked by Sonoma County leaders in 1992 to develop a program for composting the county’s yard debris, business partners Will Bakx and Alan Siegle established a model composting program, dispelling the notion that there was no market for recycled organics. Instead, the composting program not only helped Sonoma County reach AB 939 State recycling goals, but they also created a strong market for high quality, organic soil amendments. 

Sitting atop the Sonoma County Central Disposal Site on Mecham Road, the compost facility presently recycles nearly 100,000 tons of yard debris annually, material that used to be landfilled. This resource is now turned into about 90,000 cubic yards of organic compost and mulch products that are used in and around Sonoma County to enrich agricultural soils and provide valuable mulches for landscaping and water retention. The success of the program stems from focusing on creating materials that consumers actually want; by talking to farmers, landscapers and backyard gardeners, Sonoma Compost developed products to meet the needs of local growers and landscapers. Further, they work with other local businesses to identify their waste materials that could be diverted from the waste stream and utilized in adding value to local compost products.

Now, during the UN International Year of Soils, it looks as though Sonoma County’s largest closed-loop recycling program is threatened with closure in the coming weeks or months.

Clean Water Lawsuit filed by Neighbors

At community meetings over the past year, a small group of nearby residents expressed frustration at renewed disposal occurring at the landfill. They chose to target the compost operation for closure, first by attempting to build a record of odor complaints, and then last year, by filing a Clean Water lawsuit against Sonoma Compost, the Sonoma County Waste Management Agency (SCWMA), and the County of Sonoma.

The SCWMA worked closely with Sonoma Compost to develop a zero -discharge plan to address issues raised in the suit, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board embraced the proposed solution. The final plan included a 20% reduction of the site footprint, and a corresponding reduction of processing at the site; the combining of two small ponds into a larger pond; and pumping and hauling water during rainstorms to waste water treatment facilities in Santa Rosa, Petaluma and the East Bay to maintain maximum capacity for rainwater collection in the pond. These interim measures were put into play, while the end game of the proposal, site selection and development of a new facility, progressed.

Despite the best efforts of staff and many SCWMA Board members to address water quality concerns, neighbors were unwilling to settle for anything short of complete closure of the facility, and have indicated they will oppose any plans for a new compost operation that is located at the Central Disposal Site, even one that includes the most stringent environmental controls. In fact, this suit has never been about water quality, the lawsuit has been a tool for these residents to close down the operation.

Ultimately, the SCWMA Board and the County reached the discouraging decision to settle the lawsuit and to end composting in the county. The settlement dictates that all yard debris presently delivered to the landfill and transfer stations now be hauled to several Bay Area composting facilities. The compost operation run by Sonoma Compost must be shut down and vacated by October 15.

Efforts will continue at the SCWMA to identify a location for a new in-county composting facility sized to meet future needs of county residents, one that meets or exceeds environmental requirements, and that could include additional materials, such as food scraps and other materials not currently collected for composting. “Maximizing diversion of organics into the local compost operation keeps local resources out of the landfill and provides important feedstock for soil building compost”, said Will Bakx, soils scientist and co-owner of Sonoma Compost. “Governor Brown has included a line item in the State Budget this year for soil health.  Carbon farming will lessen the impacts of the drought, provides nutrients, suppresses disease, and sequesters carbon in the soil.  It is ironic that at the cross roads of such pioneering ideas we would consider shipping our organics, the main tool to achieve soil health, out of County”, said Bakx.

Unintended Consequences

Closure of this community resource will result in the loss of a valuable resource that local farmers, landscaper and backyard gardeners have come to depend upon. There are no other facilities generating a significant volume of quality organic soil amendments in the Bay Area. These products increase productivity in gardens and on farms, as well as provide important mulches that help retain moisture in our drought stricken farms and landscapes. With over 10,000 customers that purchase anywhere from a one cubic foot bag to 3000 cubic yards of soil annually, the loss of the 90,000 cubic yards of compost produced from local yard debris could be a disaster for many farmers, landscapers, backyard gardeners, and small businesses.

Other unintended consequences include impacts to the County’s big name poultry processor that brings the feather debris from their processing facility to be composted locally, providing a valuable nitrogen source to the compost, while avoiding the cost and expense of long distance hauling and disposal of a material that cannot be landfilled locally. Many wineries bring “grape lees”, the wash water from fermenting tanks, to Sonoma Compost to be used as an irrigation substitute for the compost operation instead of pumping groundwater when additional water is required top maintain optimum moisture levels. This grape lees will now be hauled at great expense for processing at an iout-of-county waste water facility.

Besides the more than two dozen Sonoma Compost employees being laid off, many others will also be affected. Local truckers haul over half of the material that leaves Sonoma Compost to customers, and landscaping materials yards purchase material for distribution from their retail outlets. The impacts on our local economy, as well as the soils have not been quantified, and the effects will widespread.

Local Resources used Locally

Sonoma Compost has been a model of community stewardship, providing educational opportunities for all ages about the importance of soil health and the value of keeping local resources in our community. Thousands of yards of compost have been donated to school and community gardens, and in Petaluma alone, over one million square feet of lawn has been converted to low water landscapes since 2010 using Sonoma Compost products.  These lawn conversion programs are currently expanding onto other cities. Sonoma Compost is been a regular donor to community organizations that support a sustainable and healthy environment, and to hundreds of local charities.

“If we make a good product, and charge a fair price; if we are a community partner and a team player, what is not to like?”, co-owner Siegle stated. Sonoma Compost is all of those things, and has demonstrated the best of these values in Sonoma County for nearly 25 years. It will be a significant loss to Sonoma County to see the door close on this award winning program, and these community stewards.

Supporters are encouraged to sign the Save Sonoma Compost petition started by the Farmers Guild. A link can be found at www.sonomacompost.com. For more up to the moment information, “like” (and share!) the Save Sonoma Compost FaceBook page.

 


 

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