Simmering tensions between Santa Barbara environmentalists and county waste managers jumped a few degrees this week with dueling letters exchanged on a $110 million proposal to extend the Tajiguas Landfill’s lifespan. The Community Environmental Council (CEC) wrote that the current plan for a materials recovery facility (MRF) and anaerobic digester — which would extract recyclables and compostable material from the waste stream and capture methane to generate electricity — will cost around $50 million more than it should, is based on soon-to-be-outdated technology, and was put in the hands of an untested and unreliable developer.
Three years ago, CEC director Sigrid Wright noted in her January 28 letter, the county hired San Luis Obispo–based Mustang Renewable Power Ventures with an agreement Mustang would secure private financing to construct the facilities. That hasn’t happened, and Mustang — newcomers to the waste-management game — is now seeking public financing, which is “a major red flag,” Wright said. In a later interview, Wright explained the CEC doesn’t want to derail the entire project but wants the landfill-using county and cities to slow down and take another hard look at the project before final approval. She said she’s somewhat surprised that didn’t happen sooner. “We really thought common sense would prevail somewhere along the line.”
In response, Mark Schleich, deputy director of County Public Works, stated the county’s direction is based on nine years of research and due diligence — not to mention 139 public presentations and more than half-a-dozen site reviews of other dumps — and that third-party experts concur with the technology choices and pricing models. Schleich said it isn’t true Mustang couldn’t assemble private financing — the choice to go public “was solely based on a desire of public jurisdictions to minimize costs to ratepayers.” It currently costs $84 per ton to dump at Tajiguas. County staff and Mustang initially hashed out a deal that would bring the fee to $146 per ton, but with public financing, Schleich said, that figure will drop to $116. During previous meetings, project critics complained that amount greatly exceeds what most California dumps charge.
Schleich expressed a desire to continue conversations with the CEC and others about the project, stressing the importance of transparency and public involvement throughout the process. He said the supervisors will take up the issue sometime before May.