Sean Janssen, The Union Democrat

With the clock running out, the Murphys Sanitary District will switch to two local companies to dispose of a pile of sludge that has become a growing burden on the beleaguered district.

The district board of directors rejected a bid Monday from an out-of-area contractor to continue removing tons of stockpiled sludge before an Oct. 15 deadline. Instead, it agreed to have a pair of Angels Camp companies start taking the material to the county landfill.

Directors were highly critical of Houston-based contractor Synagro, which has offices in Kern County, and charged $49.80 a ton to haul away and dispose of 3,000 tons of sewage sludge last week that state regulators have ordered removed by Oct. 15.

Synagro disposed of the sludge at an approved site near Herald in Sacramento County. After their work began, approved in a Sept. 10 contract signed by MSD General Manager Julio Guerra, the county Board of Supervisors agreed in a Sept. 25 vote to permit the sludge to go to its Rock Creek landfill at no charge.

Director Ryan Van Cleave became a skeptic of Synagro's fees when they offered to reduce the rate to $30 a ton to remove an additional estimated 2,000 tons of sludge once their contract for the initial 3,000 was completed Thursday.

Thursday's haul actually surpassed the contract by 600 tons and Synagro spokesman John Pugliaresi said Thursday the $30 rate would be honored for that extra material. Pugliaresi said via conference call at Thursday's meeting that the discounted rate came as a result of unanticipated space becoming available for a limited time for disposal purposes.

Synagro bid $17 a ton plus $1,800 a day for up to three days of loading to dispose of what is now estimated at 1,500 tons of remaining sludge.

Van Cleave said he could not support continuing to work with Synagro.

"We need to come to grips with we made a pretty poor decision, I think, by hiring these guys," he said.

His ire was further raised after Pugliaresi responded to hisquestion about its rates for accepting sludge from a third-party hauler, giving a $25 to $30 per ton estimate. Guerra said another Synagro representative previously told him they would only accept the sludge transported with their own trucks.

"We could have hauled it to the same place anyone else did … they can't do that. It's a monopoly," said Jason Starr, representing Sutton Enterprises of Angels Camp at Monday's meeting.

"I'm telling you I'm not going in the direction of having Synagro around here again for a very long time because I think this whole thing stunk," Van Cleave said. "I think it would be a mistake to continue using them when we have a bad taste in our mouth from what's already happened."

Van Cleave suggested misleading statements by Syangro representatives be reviewed by district counsel Ken Airola.

"I've got an issue with how he keeps dropping the price, Julio," added Director Tim O'Flinn. "I don't understand how he can do that."

The board voted 3-0 to accept a joint bid from Sutton Enterprises and Rolleri Construction to take the remaining sludge to Rock Creek for $23.75 a ton.

Director Delma Harris abstained from the vote and Director Patricia Davies did not attend the meeting.

Guerra said the Synagro bid would have cost about $6,000 less.

Guerra said he went ahead and executed the contract with Synagro after hearing Sept. 5 from Calaveras County Public Works Director Tom Garcia that an arrangement for free disposal at Rock Creek could not be reached. That left the bids from Synagro and Liberty Composting, which came in at $64 a ton, as the only feasible options with the deadline looming, Guerra said.

In a phone interview Monday, however, Garcia denied that he ever said an arrangement with the county was kaput.

He said he explained the county's established policy and rates to Guerra, that a proposal would go to the Board of Supervisors and that he could not guarantee how supervisors might vote on a proposed fee waiver.

"At no point did we say it was cast in stone, that they had to pay the fee," Garcia said.

Guerra said the district received no official notice of the matter's appearance on the agenda prior to the Sept. 25 meeting.

Garcia said the board agenda packet was made public on Sept. 20 and the staff report included the option of a fee waiver.

The work by Synagro last week plus geological consulting by Sonora-based Condor Earth Technologies has cost the district about $193,000 of a budgeted $200,000.

This week's hauling is estimated to cost an additional $35,625.

Sutton and Rolleri representatives and district staff agreed they expect the sludge removal to be complete by Thursday.