The Gaviota Coast Conservancy and many other groups have questioned the county’s proposed high-tech, high dollar trash processing plant at Tajiguas Landfill on several grounds. The Tajiguas Resource Recovery Project entails significant technological and financial risks to ratepayers and, if things go really badly, could require a subsidy from the general fund.
Not only are there less expensive programs that could accomplish the project objectives, but the organic waste that the county wants to comingle with trash could instead be used for much more effective, long-term carbon sequestration while revitalizing county grazing lands. It could be a “win-win-win” but, instead, will create $120 million of public debt, make a 20-year commitment to a questionable technology that other communities are abandoning, dramatically increase home and commercial trash rates by over 40 percent over the life of the project, and close the door to innovative changes in municipal waste management for two decades.
The project’s core technologies are a “dirty MRF” (pronounced “merf”) and an anaerobic digester at the county’s landfill at Tajiguas canyon on the Gaviota Coast, 26 miles from Santa Barbara. Today, our blue bin recyclables go through a MRF that mechanically separates and hand sorts plastic, glass, metals, and paper. The proposed dirty MRF would use automated equipment to sort the contents of both our trash and recycling bins. While we would continue to put certain recyclables in a blue bin, we would be asked to dump kitchen scraps and other organic waste into the trash bin. The dirty MRF would recover some of the recyclables that ended up in the trash bin. The rest of the waste would end up in the anaerobic digester, where the waste would be processed into methane. The methane would serve as a fuel for a 1 megawatt electric generating plant and emit 1,800 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually.
Once the methane is extracted from the mixed waste in the digester, the remaining waste is a by-product called “digestate,” which would contain glass, metal, and chemical contaminants from the trash feedstock. Since the digestate has no economic value, the operator expects to combine it with our green bin waste to make compost. However, any contaminants that are present in the digestate would end up in the compost, leading farmers and ranchers to be reluctant to use it. This, in turn, would limit opportunities to keep carbon in the soil, a process known as carbon farming, where carbon that might otherwise be emitted into the atmosphere is sequestered in soil and plants.
Carbon farming relies on high quality compost, which can be made if organic waste is separated at the source and not co-mingled with the digestate. Recent studies have shown that large volumes of high quality compost could be used locally for carbon farming and sequestration. Rather than processing organic waste in an expensive anaerobic digester that generates an unwanted, contaminated by-product, a cheaper, common-sense alternative would be to create a new organic waste collection program and use conventional composting technologies such as those used at the existing composting facility in Santa Maria. To meet the demand for high quality compost for a large-scale carbon farming program, that facility could be expanded, possibly along with developing an additional facility on the South Coast or in the Santa Ynez Valley.
We are also concerned about the project’s financing and costs. Originally, the county planned to have a private investor finance, build, and operate the project, eliminating any fiscal risk to the county. After the county selected a consortium led by MSB Investors, LLC, the investors changed course and asked the county to issue public bonds to finance the project. This completely changed the project and will force ratepayers to bear the risk of a project failure. Interest rates have spiked recently, and the county likely faces much higher financing costs than originally planned.
The project’s financing is predicated on the assumption that the sale of captured recycled materials will repay 75 percent of the bonds. This assumption is no longer reasonable, as the Chinese economy’s downturn in the last year has caused the recycled commodity market to drop precipitously. Further, Donald Trump’s campaign statements and recent actions regarding China increase the likelihood the project won’t generate even half the recycling revenues projected. If recycling revenues decline by 50 percent, residential trash rates are estimated to increase by $3/month per customer. That is on top of already approved increases that will raise the rate from $84/ton to over $136/ton in 12 years. Such dramatic increases are likely to drive grocery stores and restaurants to send their organic waste to private composting facilities, leaving the remaining residential and commercial customers to shoulder an ever larger share of the facility’s cost. The only backstop to increased costs will be increases in trash rates, and if this further reduces revenues, the likelihood of the operator abandoning the project will grow, leaving the county and the cities that sign irrevocable contracts holding the bag.
The City of Santa Barbara’s participation in the Tajiguas Resource Recovery Project (TRPP) is essential for the TRRP’s viability, and the City Council will consider a 22 year “put or pay” contract on December 13 at 2 p.m. The Board of Supervisors is also slated to approve the project on December 13. Our elected officials appear ready to commit to a highly speculative and risky project after brushing aside the Gaviota Coast Conservancy’s technical, financial, and practical objections, and compromising the Gaviota Coast for decades to come.
The Gaviota Coast is an internationally recognized bioregion whose rural character is compromised by industrial oil development and the Tajiguas Landfill. We’re nearing the end of oil production on the Gaviota Coast. Rather than contemplating 20 more years of intensive industrial use at Tajiguas, we should be planning the permanent closure of a landfill that no longer serves the public good and put our waste resources to a better use.
Michael S. Brown is president of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.