Thursday, July 10, 2008

Up In the Dumps

I've spent most of my engineering career focused on water. And water is the sink for everything we throw into the air, onto the land and directly into the water, which all flows to the sea.

But garbage has always been on my agenda, especially since my days in graduate school when I toured a $2 million proto-type incinerator being tested at the Guadalupe Landfill, poised above the Water District's percolation ponds at the edge of western Almaden Valley. The juxtapositions of the landfill and the Water District's percolation ponds would not dawn on me until a few years later.

The manager of this project was a man named John Siracusa. He was very friendly guy and most enthusiastic about this approach to managing all solid waste for the Valley, including sewage sludge that would be piling up on the floodplain of the lower Coyote Creek (and becoming the primary cause of the Alviso flood of 1983) and elsewhere.

We chatted long after my class tour ended about some of the obstacles facing such a system. He advised me, if I might be interested in working with them after graduation, to research the state of the art systems for materials separation, grinding, and stack gas treatment technology and costs. The only solid material exiting this incinerator was a glass/slag that formed in a water trough below the incinerator, equipped with a chain-driven conveyor feeding into a dumpster. I could also research if this material would this be a good aggregate for asphalt/glassphalt?

Environmental Engineering had an overwhelming scope to it which made it difficult to focus on a curriculum that would produce some actual practical knowledge. This garbage thing suddenly gave me focus. While most of the programs and professors at the the time were focused on water issues, I set off on an academic path that hardly any of my colleagues or professors knew much about. I learned much about many of the problems facing this incineration technology, but after graduating in 1970, FMC and its incineration system folks were losing their hope of ever appeasing the regional Air Quality Management District and getting a permit to construct the full-scale incinerator. So no job in the garbage business for this third-generation Italian-American. And no mafia jokes to endure the rest of my life.

So I rejoined the Water Protection Cadre of Environmental Engineers (WPCEE, woopsee) and got a job with a Chicago-based engineering company that had a satellite office here in San Jose and had a contract with San Jose to design the expansion of the San Jose-Santa Clara Water Pollution Control Plant. They also just signed a joint venture agreement with the Bechtel Corporation to prepare a regional wastewater treatment system for all the South San Francisco Bay dischargers, below the Dumbarton straits.
This study eventually lead me to run for the local Water District Board of Directors and use my engineering education in the public policy arena instead of on the drafting boards in an engineering company.

I brought an ethic of water use efficiency and pollution prevention to the Board and the Santa Clara Valley Water District that was mostly considered weird at the time. The staff of the District now devoted a great amount of effort trying to debunk my approach, until finally giving way to changing their approach and adopting more sustainable practices like recycling and storm water pollution prevention.

But pollution prevention in the Coyote Valley sub-basin of the 350 square-mile Coyote Creek watershed has been a miserable oversight in the Water District's role as watershed steward. The City of San Jose recently received comments on a developer-funded Environmental Impact Report on a planning fiasco to build industry and residential/commercial development for 80,000 people and 50,000 jobs on top of the main recharge zone for the primary aquifer which yields half of the valley's water supply.There was no alarm sounded by the Water District to ward off this development . The graphics demonstrating that the Coyote Valley was a highly permeable area with very high groundwater levels appeared in a joint SJ Council/Water Board meeting. However, no one spoke the required words of caution about the need to protect the groundwater basin from this potential massive dose of urban storm water pollution.

This omission in the pursuit of their mission, was not, unfortunately, the only time that the Water District went blind to the need for constant vigilance in protecting the water quality of the basin from pollution originating in the Coyote Valley. The following is the deep background of permitting process for siting the Kirby Canyon Landfill.

Kirby Canyon is a small westerly inclined valley tributary to Coyote Creek, located about a mile downstream of Andersen Dam, between US Hwy 101 and Andersen Reservoir, the largest local water impoundment facility owned by the Santa Clara Valley Water District. Directly west of this canyon area are numerous abandoned gravel pits that have refilled with the abundant local high groundwater. It was this location that Waste Management, the largest solid waste management company in the world, picked for a new landfill site.

The land was owned by the American-Hawaiian Land Company, a subsidiary of the Dole Pineapple Company, which had bought much of the watershed lands surrounding the northern end of Andersen Reservoir, including some land inundated by the reservoir. The Water District actually sold them this piece of real estate in order allow them to control the water level overlooked by the lakeside lots they planned to sell in their "new town." Luckily, the Local Agency Formation Commission cast serious doubt on the economic feasibility of servicing this satellite community, not to speak of the problem of protecting the District's water supply from development directly adjacent to the shore of the reservoir.

By "virtue" of strip annexations along highway 101, the lands of the Coyote Valley were within the City of San Jose's land use jurisdiction. Both San Jose and all the cities in the county were also getting desperate to site additional landfill capacity for burying the refuse from a population now approaching 2 million people. NIMBY responses had eliminated every option that had so far been considered.

The County took the lead on the process and would lead the County's Intergovernmental Council through the process of approving the Kirby Canyon as the new landfill site. It would be available to all the county to dump its garbage at this new site located high up in the watershed. They would vote to approve this site, at the very top of the groundwater recharge zone, up gradient of thousand of wells pumping drinking water to the 2 million residents and businesses downstream. They would take this action just two months after approving the model ordinance for protecting the groundwater from Leaking Underground Storage Tanks (LUST)

When I objected at the final discussion before adopting the new County Solid Waste Plan, including the Kirby Canyon Landfill, one councilman said that since the District had not objected to the proposed landfill site, that it must not be a problem. My vote was the only nay vote on the proposal.

Learning why the Water District was silent on this crucial land use issue requires that you follow the money. The first money went to the land holding company that had bought all this rangeland in hopes of high profits from a residential land use scheme that went nowhere. A representative of the company, named Ed Teresi, was often seen with Sig Sanchez. Sig had been on the Water Board since he was appointed by the Board of Supervisors immediately after he retired from that governance body. His tenure on the Board of Supervisors spanned the period when the Andersen lakeside development was being proposed.

The next major expenditure for Waste Management would be the construction of the landfill itself. The company selected for this work was the FERMA Corporation, run by a Mr Ray Ferrari. Ferrari just happened to be a good friend of Mr. John O'Halloran, General Manager of the Santa Clara Valley Water District. John was a regular guest of Mr Ferrari's salmon fishing trips to Alaska. One year while this landfill business was still in review, Mr. O'Halloran showed up at my house to give me a salmon, a well-known signal from mob lore that you could be swimming with the fishes. At the ground breaking ceremony for the landfill, John O'Halloran flew into the site with Ray Ferrari in the company's helicopter. During this process. O'Halloran also took a trip to Italy and Switzerland to "go skiing."

Prior to being General Manager of the Water District, Mr. O'Halloran was the city manager of Mountain View, one of the fifteen incorporated cities in Santa Clara County. During that tenure, he brokered a deal with the private garbage company serving San Francisco to dump its garbage on the shores of San Francisco Bay on the eastern edge of Mt. View. Today that dump site is known as Shoreline Amphitheater.

During one Water Board meeting, I suggested that the District join a lawsuit trying to stop the Kirby Canyon Landfill. A Stanford biology professor had mapped the habitat for the Bay Checkerspot butterfly, which was on the list of endangered species, and a suit was filed to stop its construction. This problem was solved by Waste Management buying an additional 100 acres of land from the holding company and set it aside as a butterfly preserve. The Dole Pineapple people laughed all the way to the bank.

I felt the District should file an amicus brief in the lawsuit concerning the great potential impairment to groundwater quality that this proposed facility could cause down gradient of this site. Recently-retired Director Sanchez loudly objected that the District would do any such thing. At a subsequent meeting Mr O'Halloran had the District geologist, Tom Imamura, address the Board, giving them assurance that the bedrock below the landfill was solid "so it would not allow contamination to pass through it." The fact that the valley's bedrock was inclined at about 30 degrees toward the creek and surrounding aquifer was somehow overlooked in his presentation.

The groundbreaking ceremony was an event Lewis Caroll could not have better scripted. A large white tent was set up for the catered affair. A white grand piano was brought up to the future dump site and was played by a pianist in a white tuxedo with tails. Most attendees, including myself. were brought to the site in a school bus that we boarded at Waste Management's offices in downtown San Jose. My jaw dropped when I saw John O'Halloran get out of Mr. Ferrari's helicopter that landed just before the speech-making commenced. No need to hide their relationship now that everything happened just as they wanted it to be.

During the event, we took a short shuttle ride to the top of the landfill overlooking the entire site, including the water-filled gravel pits down below the creek. I realised that I was standing next to the President of Waste Management. I leaned over and said "If any of this garbage gets into that water down below, I'll see that this dump was shut down and the company held liable for all the cleanup costs." He was so stunned that he didn't respond at all.

Several months after the dump began receiving waste, monitoring wells at the lowest end of the property began showing concentrations of the industrial solvents that had been leaking out of electronic companies across the valley. It seemed that one of those companies had illegally disposed of these solvents into this dump that should never have accepted such waste. The landfill had begun operations without installing either a liner or a leachate collection, treatment or recycling system. The leachate was just flowing, by gravity, right under the dump. along the tight bedrock, heading right into the groundwater basin.

Someone in a legal department discovered some language that implied that if the discovered pollution was only on the landfill site that it did not constitute "a leak." A memo to that effect was distributed to all the City of San Jose pols who could otherwise be embarrassed by this situation and they all began reciting, like a litany, "It's not a leak, It's not a leak" After hearing this at a few meetings, I obtained a copy of the cleanup order issued by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board. The next time I heard the"It's not a leak" litany, I stood up and waving the paper at the group said, "Then this must be a cleanup order for a NON LEAK!" I never heard the litany again.

Waste Management did finally install the liner and the leachate collection system and has stayed in operation, despite this minor embarrassment. The City of San Jose, which receives a "tipping fee" for every load of garbage disposed at the site and Waste Management were hit hard economically when the State later passed a law requiring all cities to reduce their flow of garbage to landfills by 50% within the following decade.

So far the worst has not yet happened. But unknown quantities of the toxic stew that is the landfill's leachate could still be released into the groundwater basin following a strong earthquake on the Calaveras Fault, that runs near or through the site. When that occurs, everyone will be scratching their heads wondering how local decision-makers could ever take such a genocidal action by siting this facility which put our garbage Up in The Dumps.

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