© 2021 KALW
KALW Public Media / 91.7 FM Bay Area
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Landfill expansion pits Marin environmentalists against nation's largest waste company

If you drive north from San Francisco and through most of Marin County, you get to the town of Novato. Turn east from Highway 101 and you run into the San Pablo wetlands, now being restored after more than a century of infill. 

Here, egrets, storks, and other birds fly overhead, making the area a popular destination for nature lovers. Nearby, the Petaluma River winds through the hills before connecting to the San Pablo Bay.

It’s a pastoral scene. But just steps away, at the Redwood Landfill, lie mountains of trash. It’s trucked in from Marin and southern Sonoma County every single day.

Alisa McCutcheon, who oversees the landfill’s composting operation, says, “We get 500 to 600 tons per day of garbage. That would be equivalent to about 22 big rig loads, or tractor trailer loads, of garbage.”

McCutcheon says the site, owned by Houston-based Waste Management, will run out of space in about 10 years. Its solution: take in six million cubic yards of material. If that happens, at full capacity, piles of garbage will be as tall as a 16 story building, making it the tallest structure in all of Marin. The company contends it won’t make a bigger footprint, because the trash will be piled at a steeper angle.

Marin County approved the expansion in 2008. The project includes building a methane power plant to turn garbage into energy and a recycling facility for construction materials.

Redwood Landfill district manager Daniel North says, “The county has set forth a zero waste goal by 2025, and we need to support that goal.”

North says his company is trying to do the right thing by the environment.

“If Redwood Landfill were allowed to reach capacity,” he says, “Marin County’s waste would have to long hauled out of the area, which would result in increased costs to the ratepayers and an increased carbon footprint due to the longer haul.”

But a group of residents opposes the plan and has filed a lawsuit to stop the work. They say the landfill is located below sea level and prone to flooding, meaning waste from the site can leech and contaminate the water. Brent Newell is an attorney for No Wetlands Landfill Expansion Alliance, the group that filed the lawsuit in 2009.

“When it comes down to it,” says Newell, “the Redwood Landfill is a 1950s era unlined landfill that’s located in the largest tidal marsh on the West Coast. It’s literally located in the marsh.”

Newell’s group is concerned about how rising sea levels will impact the site. San Pablo Bay is projected to rise 16 inches by 2050. That may not sound like a lot, but it means that areas close to the water will be much more likely to flood.

Last December, a judge agreed with many of the Alliance’s arguments, and she rejected an Environmental Impact Report on the expansion. That prompted Waste Management to file an appeal, arguing that the concerns are without merit.

“The fears that have been expressed by the petitioners are not founded on any fact,” says OshaMeserve, an attorney representing Waste Management. “And it’s probably based more on NIMBYism, in that they would rather see their waste go to other locations than keep the waste locally.”

Meserve says the landfill constantly monitors the site to make sure all standards are being met. It also has three levees, which can be raised as needed.

And, she says, there is no alternate site for the landfill in Marin County. That means the trash would have to be trucked to the East Bay, increasing greenhouse gas emissions and rates for consumers.

To opponents, like Brett Newell, those added emissions are worth it if it means keeping trash out of the Bay.

“There is no question that global warming is occurring and that sea level will rise in the future,” he says. “The question for Marin County is ‘Is it appropriate policy to put more garbage in a place where we’re going to have rising sea levels and increased flooding?’”

If the expansion is granted, it means another 25 years of operations for one of the last landfills on the San Francisco Bay. If not, Marin’s trash will be transported out of the county. Because despite our best efforts, some trash will always exist. And it all has to go somewhere.

Click the audio player above to listen to the story.