COMMENTARY: Some dirty questions on potential landfill expansion

Joel Buckingham writes to asks some questions about the proposal to expand the John Smith Landfill.

This commentary was written by resident Joel Buckingham. The opinions expressed do not necessarily represent BenitoLink or other affiliated contributors. BenitoLink invites all community members to share their ideas and opinions. By registering as a BenitoLink user in the top right corner of our home page and agreeing to follow our Terms of Use, you can write counter opinions or share your insights on current issues.


A while back there was an article in BenitoLink advocating for the expansion of John Smith Landfill by former supervisor Jim Gillio. That article led me to a lot of questions that I would love to have answered as the expansion of the Landfill is considered. 

The first question I want answered is, how do other small counties do this? The letter made it sound as if a county of our size just cannot manage our own landfill. However, our county has about 70,000 people in it and is very geographically large. Smaller counties like Lassen somehow manage to have an in-county landfill, and operate their own landfill, with about half the population. How is it that they manage to do it, while we cannot? Yet, the letter states that we are too small of a county to manage and operate the landfill locally. How can this be the case? Is it that we are unwilling to pay for a department to manage the landfill? Is it cost-prohibitive? What is the cost?  

According to the John Smith Landfill Expansion FAQs, provided by Waste Connections (the proponent of the expansion), out-of-county waste generates $1.2 million in annual revenue to the county. Has anyone thought of how paltry this sum is? Assume there are 5000 households in this county, if each household paid $20 more a month for trash, that would cover the entire amount of revenue generated to the county ($20 X 12 months X 5000 Households=$1.2 million). According to county information out-of-county landfill traffic did $14.1 million worth of road damage and in addition necessitates ongoing additional maintenance costs. How can this be a good deal? 

Is it worth $20/month to increase the landfill size by 388 Acres? How large is 388 Acres? 388 Acres is larger than the size of the entire Hollister Airport at only 343 Acres. And for what? We are told this is to “optimize the asset” of the landfill. What if this is the wrong construction of the question? Certainly, Waste Connections sees the landfill as an “asset” to be “optimized,” what if instead the landfill should be seen as a liability to be minimized. That does not mean that the landfill is not useful to the community, but we are left or better said our descendants are left forever with this trash. Do we not love San Benito enough to say that we in San Benito can be responsible to deal with our own trash, but Santa Clara needs to do the same? 

Waste Connections tells us in their FAQs online discussing what revenues the county receives includes “ownership of the additional 388 acres acquired by WSG for $7 million will be deeded to the county at no cost to the county.”  Do we want to end up “owning” this potential future Superfund site? Why do we want to “own” this at all? What does it even mean to “own” the site of a landfill, doesn’t that sound more like “be responsible for in the future?”  And if that is the case, then why should the organization “optimizing the asset” be the one responsible in the future for the landfill. 

We are told that if we do not expand the landfill it will close in 15 years. Why is not possible to expand the landfill in 14 years by a much smaller amount that will continue to the landfill to accepting only in-county trash? It seems like if we can increase the landfill by 388 acres today, there should be no reason we could not increase it by 38 acres, about the area of San Benito High School, 14 years from now. Is the size of the expansion being sought because the operator recognizes that this may be the last opportunity they have to expand the landfill before the community realizes this is a bad deal for the community? 

We are told that if any liability occurs out at the landfill we are benefited because we would “have someone to hold responsible.”  Has not experience taught us that what would happen is that the landfill will be operated for 30 years, during that time the corporate ownership would pay out dividends and income, the owners would receive a present benefit, and then when the liability springs up, the company having paid out most of its gains over the years would then file bankruptcy renegotiate the terms of its liability, not unlike PG&E, and we the community remain on the hook? 

We are told that we benefit from taking out-of-county trash because it lowers our rates. But is this truly the case? If the cost to deal with our trash is a certain amount say $80/month, but we get a discount of $20/month to take out-of-county trash, who is really paying that $20/month? Isn’t it the case that it is not Silicon Valley, they are paying $28/ton while we pay $45/ton, instead it is our descendants? We are getting a discount today, but our children will pay for it in the future. This seems like a complete inversion of our present responsibility, which is to pay our expenses for the trash we generate today. It does not really seem like it lowers our rates, it just steals some value from our children. 

To be fair, I am not fully versed on all the issues related to the landfill, but I have an awful lot of hesitation, and instead of saying that people are spreading misinformation because they have a great deal of hesitancy about accepting a bunch of trash from out-of-county, we can try to make sure that all the questions are answered and that in fact, whatever we do is truly the best for our community and the future of our community. I want to thank the Board of Supervisors for recently voting to reject a transfer station at the Landfill, certainly at a minimum the community should be made more aware of what allowing a transfer station would even mean to the community. From reading the most recent article, it appears that this was a design to allow the landfill to continue taking out-of-county trash. 

Over 10 years ago, much electronic waste was shipped to China who was willing to accept the hazardous waste to use the funds generated to support their industrialization, but they learned that the cost to accepting Electronic Waste from Americans was not worth the revenue it generated and so we have had more issues dealing with Electronic Waste stateside. Let us learn from their experience, some things are worth more than money. If we incorrectly assess the costs of landfill expansion, we and we alone will be left with the tab. 

Joel Buckingham