Neighbors’ complaints shut down green waste recycling
August 19, 2010
A battle over the smell of freshly ground greens has escalated to the point where most of San Luis Obispo County’s green waste composting will be eliminated, raising serious questions about the fate of the Cold Canyon Landfill.
On Sept. 1, Cold Canyon will begin trucking green waste to Santa Maria, the price will go from $20 a ton to $43 a ton with a small raise in curb rates. By the end of the month, the facility operators plan to have sold off any remaining compost.
“I buy their green waste and use it for landscaping,” said Larry Cusick, a local landscaper. “It is unbelievable that such a valuable service is no longer available.”
The Cold Canyon Landfill opened approximately 50 years ago, serves about 70 percent of the residents of San Luis Obispo County, while earning a reputation for having a high rate of recycling.
Twelve years ago, Cold Canyon began composting green waste. A few years later, the prior owner of the adjacent property sold four 40 acre parcels.
People who bought the properties soon built homes and moved next to the dump. This group of homeowners contends they thought the dump would be shut down when its latest permit expired, which is slated to occur in the next few years.
When the neighbors became aware that the plant’s operators had filed for a permit to extend the landfill portion of the facility, they joined together as a group and asked Bruce Falkenhagen, who owns a 40-acre parcel, to be their spokesperson. They then started a concerted effort to shut down the Cold Canyon facility by lodging repeated complaints to regulators.
Following up on the neighbor’s complaints, the state sent investigators to check for composting odors.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery filed three odor violations against the facility for green waste smells in three months starting in April. As a result of three violations in three months, the state issued a cease and desist order for the green waste smells or the dump could be closed down.
State laws prohibit green waste odors, even the smell of Christmas trees, while allowing stronger odors to emanate from trash.
“The odor resembled freshly ground green material feedstock,” one violation said.
“It is not that it smelled bad,” landfill manager Tom Martin said. “If I grind Christmas trees and it smells like pine, it is a violation. Given these standards there is no way we can operate.”
In the past, San Luis Obispo County has received accolades and awards for their recycling programs and a diversion rate that is more than 60 percent. (Diversion rate is the percentage of waste materials diverted from traditional landfills to be recycled, composted or re-used.)
“In this day and age, when we know how important composting is, to be hauling this out of area is absolutely absurd,” said Jeff Buckingham, the president of Blue Rooster Telecom and an advocate for composting.
In early 2009, shortly after the Garbage Company began working on the permit process, the neighboring homeowners started making multiple smells and noise complaints.
“We saw a huge upswing in complaints in 2009,” said Karen Brooks, the San Luis Obispo Air Pollution Control Board compliance section manager. “The record of complaints is forcing these issues.”
Since mid 2009, the neighbors have lodged almost 700 complaints with state and local government agencies, officials said.
Falkenhagan disagrees and claims that the neighbors starting making repeated complaints in 2004.
Officials at the dump contend they have had very few complaints until they began working on the permit and that the homeowners should have known there would be some odors before they built their homes next to the dump.
“They bought the land cheap because it is next to a landfill and then they complain that it smells,” Martin said. “They want to shut down the landfill completely.”
San Luis Obispo County Supervisor Adam Hill said the neighbors have the right to lodge noise and odor complaints. But noted there is a tradeoff to living near a dump.
“I would prefer that we can continue to compost,” Hill said. “That is why we have such a great diversion rate.”
Falkenhagan, who purchased 40 acres of land near the dump for $365,000 in 2000, objects to the argument that they purchased the land at a lower cost because of its location.
“While it appears that the neighbors are now being portrayed as whiners and we bought the property for cheap because it was near a landfill, I take issue with that,” Falkenhagan said in an email. “When I bought in 2000, I paid a very high dollar for the land.”
Landfill officials contend that the neighbors have organized an email and phone tree to remind each other to send out complaints in an effort to close the dump.
In an email sent Jan. 6 2010, Falkenhagan writes that the Cold Canyon’s EIR is reporting very few odor complaints. He urges his neighbors to correct that with email and calls to state and local government officials if they smell an odor. (The first circulated draft of the EIR was completed before the neighbors started filing multiple complaints.)
“I will be sending an email to all of you,” Falkenhagan says in the email. “Please go outside then and see if you smell anything. If you do, you make the same calls. This takes everyone if we hope to succeed.”
Falkenhagan said they oppose the extension because the smells are unbelievable and the county should stop using a landfill to dispose of trash.
If the landfill permit is not approved or the state shuts down the landfill because of the odors, Martin said the Garbage Company will most likely ship the county’s garbage to a landfill in Avenal. If that occurs, the cost to local businesses and residents is slated to double or triple.
Falkenhagan disagrees with the idea of shipping local garbage out of the area and has offered to build a modern waste-to-energy plant that produces energy through methane gases. He points out that waste to energy facilities are cleaner and expected to be the green garbage plants of the future.
While waste to energy plants can cost more than $100 million to build, Falkenhagan said he found a recently engineered facility that can be purchased for $25 million. The company has two plants operating at this time, one in Australia and another in Israel, Falkenhagan said.
“Anything that will be done to clean the environment or make the earth a better place will cost something,” Falkenhagan said. He added that the people of the county should not mind paying more for their trash disposal so that the neighbors of Cold Canyon will not have to smell trash for another 30 years–the length of time the landfill’s life will be extended it the pending permit is approved.
Even so, Martin argues that the cost to taxpayers includes higher operational costs and permitting costs making it unlikely the county would elect to put a burden on the community during a downturn in the economy.
He also points out that Falkenhagen paid a significant settlement for being one of Santa Barbara’s Counties most “egregious” polluters.
In the 1990’s, Falkenhagen was sued by the Santa Barbara County Air Pollution Control District (APCD) and the Santa Barbara County District Attorney’s Office for operating an energy power plant without the required air pollution control equipment and lying to the APCD to conceal the fact that his operation was releasing hundreds of tons of nitrogen oxides into the air.
Officials said Falkenhagen’s plant was one of the top stationary sources for air pollution in Santa Barbra County’s history.
Falkenhagan admitted to knowingly operating without the proper equipment. He paid a $155,000 fine and publicly apologized to the business community, according to a press release from the Santa Barbra District Attorney’s office.