Lots of Rain, No Landslides in Santa Barbara County

Alisal Fire Nearly Out, Tajiguas Landfill Slowly Reopening

Credit: Mike Eliason/S.B. County Fire

Along with the good news that Monday’s rainstorm did not wash anyone out in the Alisal Fire burn scar came the information that the fire was just about extinguished and comments from Public Works that the Tajiguas Landfill would be operational earlier than expected.

The three-plus inches of rain rolled some rock onto the roads and mud into streets along Refugio, but UPS and FedEx vans continued to come and go, evidence of the relative mildness of the much-anticipated storm. Emergency managers had issued an evacuation order on Sunday that was lifted just over 24 hours later. The storm, which delivered more than four and a half inches of rain at San Marcos Pass, barely moved the storage needle at Lake Cachuma, which has seen only two healthy rain years during the past decade.

The biofilter that scrubs the air in the recycling center at Tajiguas was destroyed by the Alisal Fire, and the ammonia air scrubbers could take months to replace. | Credit: Lael Wageneck / S.B. County Public Works

Alisal Fire incident commanders had not yet signed off on 100 percent containment, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Andrew Madsen on Tuesday, but it was “as close to being contained as it can be without being at 100 percent.”

Tajiguas Landfill, where most of southern Santa Barbara County sends its trash, was hit by the fire on its first night, October 11. Six or seven of the methane “wells” — or pipes down in the buried trash that collect the gas — caught fire, and the giant biofilter system in the recycling center was toast. But what was thought to take months to fix may actually take just a few weeks.

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The methane well fires were all extinguished pretty quickly, said Scott McGolpin, who heads Public Works for Santa Barbara County. At first they’d thought replacement parts for the above-ground pipe system would be trapped in the delivery boondoggle plaguing the country. But staffers were able to locate contractors with good supplies on hand, and two of the six landfill zones were back in operation already. That methane extracted from the buried trash powers the materials recycling facility, or MRF, which lost its air filter to the fire. Rebuilding the biofilter and its heavy-duty concrete walls — which had been torn apart to snuff out the woodchip bonfire — plus getting new ammonia scrubbers from an overseas supplier could take several months, McGolpin said, and accounted for much of the $10 million cost to replace the air system.

The landfill staff were being very creative in coming back from the fire, McGolpin said, working around the clock to get Tajiguas up and running again. He noted that ammonia readings had been low in the MRF when it was operational, “and with that knowledge we’re working with the Air Pollution Control District to see if there are other options” in starting up the MRF again. The first test would be to restart the conveyor system that separates the contents of the blue recycling cans and to take air-quality samples throughout the day.

This week, the landfill was opened again for loads of trash, and they didn’t have to haul to Ventura and Santa Maria anymore, McGolpin said. A closed Tajiguas was estimated to cost the county $2 million per month in tipping fees — or the charge to offload trash — and the cost of taking trash to other landfills was another $500,000 a month, expenses the county could ill afford after completing the new $150 million Tajiguas facility in July.

Fortunately, the most expensive part of the facility — the $33 million anaerobic digester and methane system — was spared by the fire. All the recycling and conversion of organics to methane is part of lengthening the eight-year lifetime left to Tajiguas before it hits its permitted capacity. The long-term goal would be to increase the volume at the landfill without touching undisturbed earth, McGolpin said, or to go a little higher and a little farther up the canyon.

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