It’s a dirty subject, but it’s one that needs to be cleared up: the John Smith Road Landfill.
For 30 years, the landfill, located at 2650 John Smith Road near Hollister, has accepted out-of-county trash as a source of revenue for San Benito County—a decision that has since sparked debate among county residents. At that time, the landfill was operated by the county.
According to the John Smith Road Landfill website, “Waste Solutions Group (‘WSG’) has operated the landfill since 2005 under agreements with San Benito County.”It was determined the county could not afford to operate the landfill with the additional state regulations.
Now, the 64-year-old landfill—still under contract with Waste Solutions—is proposing to expand an additional 388-acres, added to its existing 95 acres, creating more opposition over pollution and traffic concerns from some county residents.
If approved, the landfill’s current 58-acre waste footprint would increase to 195 acres, expanding the property to a total of 483 acres, or approximately five times its current size, according to the draft environmental impact report. The report also adds the county is considering increasing the tons-per-day limit from 1,000 to 2,300, which would allow the landfill to accept out-of-county waste through 2072.
Local grassroots activist groups like Don’t Dump on San Benito are protesting this expansion. Don’t Dump on San Benito members said they are concerned about the possibility of groundwater contaminants migrating to nearby residential areas. They also object to damage to local roads and increased traffic if the county were to accept more out-of-county waste.
San Benito County Integrated Waste Management manager Celina Stotler said the county is looking to expand the landfill to remain compliant with state requirements for recycling, waste recovery and organic diversion, and “will aim to mitigate roadway impacts and degradation due to increased truck traffic.”
Former Director of Integrated Waste Management Mandy Rose and former San Benito County Supervisor Anthony Botelho said if the landfill is not expanded, the county would be required to build a transfer station to send trash to another landfill when John Smith reaches its capacity. Rose led the agency from 1999 to 2015 and Botelho served four terms, from 2004 to 2020.
According to Lance Klug, public information officer with CalRecycle, a state agency overseeing waste management, recycling and waste reduction programs, in order “to meet state non-hazardous waste disposal and planning requirements, counties are required to report if they have 15 years of landfill disposal capacity to CalRecycle through their Electronic Annual Report and 5-year Review Report.”
The landfill reached the 15-year in-county-waste capacity in March. The Board of Supervisors denied a request by Waste Solutions to build a medium-volume transfer station at the John Smith Road Landfill earlier this year.
“If San Benito does not expand their landfill, county waste will have to be hauled elsewhere, which would impact disposal costs for county residents and businesses,” he said.
Unlike a landfill, a transfer station is a facility where solid waste is taken by collection crews and, once there, is unloaded from smaller collection trucks to larger vehicles such as long-haul trucks, trains and barges. The larger vehicles then take the waste to final disposal sites.
For instance, the South Coast Recycling and Transfer Station in Santa Barbara County, which serves as a central collection point for a large portion of the non-hazardous waste on the South Coast, receives commercial roll-off containers, as well as waste brought in by residents and small, non-franchised haulers. Transfer station fees are also requested for materials brought to the station.
“Then we’re somebody else’s outside waste and we’re at somebody else’s mercy, as far as what we’re doing with our garbage,” Botelho said.
He added that if it’s not expanded, the landfill will reach its capacity in approximately 10 years and the county will “never open another landfill again.”
“There hasn’t been a landfill approved in California for a lot of years,” Botelho said.
According to Klug, the last landfill permit to be approved in California was for San Diego County’s Gregory Canyon Landfill in 2011. However, it was never built and the permit was later surrendered. The last landfill to be approved and created was in 2009: the Lost Hills Environmental Waste Facility in Lost Hills.
“It is very rare that we deny a permit for a landfill,” Klug said, adding that the process is first vetted at the local level and then the state reviews it meets California’s rigorous public health and environmental protection standards.
Why did the county accept out-of-county trash?
According to Rose, the Environmental Protection Agency changed its regulations in 1992, which made it too expensive for the county to meet the rising cost of developing landfill cells. To make the landfill operation economically feasible, San Benito County decided to accept out-of-county trash.
“We could have gone ahead and not allowed any outside waste to come in, but somebody’s gotta still pay for that,” Botelho said. “The cost of the local garbage rate would be unimaginable without a certain amount of volume. You have to triple-line it, you have to put a pumping system to extract methane gas and dispose of it. It’s hundreds of thousands of dollars that go into developing those cells.”
Triple lining refers to the permeable barrier the landfill operator is required to place in the ground so waste toxins don’t leach into groundwater and soil.
According to the landfill website, the landfill’s expansion would protect county residents from experiencing drastic rate hikes. Otherwise, it states, “Out-of-county landfills would control the costs to the out-of-county user with no guaranteed rates and could reject taking waste at any time.”
The site says the county was receiving $3.93 per ton from out-of-county waste, known as the landfill depletion fee, which “increases annually based upon cost of living adjustments.”
In December 2010, an amended Landfill Operating Agreement increased the daily tonnage limit from 500 to 1,000 tons. The agreement was unanimously approved by the San Benito County Board of Supervisors.
Botelho said in 2010, the county was “absolutely desperate for revenue” after there had been a decline in funds following the 2008 recession. He said the lack of funds made it difficult for the landfill operator to sustain California’s updated regulations and requirements for landfills.
That desperation led the county to create a new agreement with Waste Connections looking to increase revenue from the landfill.
“The 2010 agreement wasn’t a very good agreement,” Botelho admitted. “I was on the board. I’ll own that, too—it was a bad agreement. It was based on a dollar amount for the tipping fees and it was good at the time. But coming out of the recession and seeing Waste Connections bringing in [trash] closer to the caps of tons per day, we should have been realizing more money, and we weren’t.”
Rose said the county mishandled funds following the agreement.
She said landfill funds or what’s called “enterprise money,” are earmarked for specific uses. “Money for the roads that the trucks drive on, that kind of thing,” Rose said. “So if it has a nexus to the landfill, they can spend money out of the enterprise fund. When Waste Connections took that over, we had close to $5 million in the enterprise fund, and so those were released. The county auditor said that because they were now surplus, they could go to the general fund.”
Marty Richman, who was a resident at the time the agreement was made and later became a Hollister City Council member, submitted Community Opinion pieces to BenitoLink in 2016 and 2018 regarding the county’s mishandling of landfill funds. In his 2016 opinion piece, he said “San Benito County used an agreement with Waste Connections to divert $4.8 million of rate-payer enterprise funds and other payments to the county’s General Fund in exchange for in-kind assets from the Landfill-Solid Waste Enterprise.”
“The story begins at the conclusion of county budget hearings for fiscal year 2010-11 when the county faced a $4 million deficit in its General Fund,” Richman continued, claiming the Board of Supervisors’ “eyes turned to the John Smith Landfill” when seeking revenue “to make up the shortfall.”
“In addition to diverting the funds, the county’s own internal documents reveal that it failed to take adequate actions to protect the local landfill capacity, address the transportation impacts (air quality, traffic, road maintenance and litter), or obtain a net revenue increase from accepting up to an added 750 tons a day of out-of-county waste, which was the agreement’s original primary purpose,” Richman wrote.
Botelho said as the landfill approached its 15-year capacity, Waste Connections acquired an option for additional property adjacent to the current landfill for expansion.
That property, purchased from Manuel Lima, “opened the door for us to go ahead and process and allow this expansion to take place, as long as we could renegotiate our tipping fees so we could address some of the impacts that are caused by the additional waste coming in,” Botelho said.
Botelho said if the landfill is expanded, “it will be able to accommodate the county’s waste for the next six or seven decades, including the outside waste coming in, and it will fix our roads and free up other funds to fix more roads in other areas of the county that we might not be able to use enterprise funds to utilize for.”
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