Twelve years is long enough for the landfill saga

May 14, 2007 12:00 am

"As the landfill turns."

This twist on a soap opera title, as offered recently by Tuolumne County Supervisor Mark Thornton, indeed provides a bit of comic relief when it comes to the county's attempts to fully close the Jamestown Landfill.

But behind this quip is an otherwise convoluted, painfully long and entirely unfunny epic that, despite the best intentions of a cast of county officials, goes on and on.

The 54-acre Jamestown Landfill, off Campo Seco Road between Sonora and Jamestown, was the county's main dumping site from 1974 to 1995 — when it was declared filled to capacity. That amounted to 1.58 million cubic yards of garbage.

Considering the pile's enormity, subsequent plans for sealing off this massive pile of refuse were complex.

The plans, as regulated by the state's Integrated Waste Management Board and Regional Water Quality Control Board, called for the dump site to be literally entombed by a 4-foot layer of non-permeable clay that would keep rainwater from reaching the decomposing garbage and in turn polluting ground water.

But the landfill's steep west slope, with a 71 percent grade, added a new wrinkle. A cap on that would likely slip, a state engineering geologist warned. Further studies were called for and the closing work was delayed. But a county-hired engineer determined that sealing off the grade as is would work, and the county assured state officials the sealed landfill would be closely monitored. In 2001, the state water board issued a tentative approval of the plan.

By June 2005, the now-multi-million dollar effort was complete. A khaki-color thick cover of clay was over the heap and clearly visible from parts of Highway 108 and Jamestown. It wasn't attractive to motorists, but to county officials, it was a welcome sight. Better yet, they could also see an end to this now 10-year-long effort.

Wrong.

Four months later, the county received a violation notice for failing to complete a final construction report and ultimately paid a $25,000 fine. And last winter, just as that state geologist had predicted, portions of the cap on that steep western slope slid down.

Repair work on the slope must be done by January, the water quality board now warns, or the county could be fined a whopping $10,000 a day. To avoid that, county supervisors last week — on a 3-2 vote — agreed to hire a Sacramento-area engineering team to design a repair plan. Bids for the actual work will then be sought and, as planned, the fix-it work will commence.

But meeting the Jan. 1 deadline will be "a real challenge," county Public Works Director Peter Rei has already warned the board.

What now?

Rei has many explanations: The county road system he's in charge of is literally full of holes, he's got key staff vacancies he hasn't been able to fill and now his deputy director of public works — the guy who oversaw much of the landfill closure efforts — is leaving for a new job in Manteca.

Without question, Rei's often unenviable job is rife with challenges.

But such is life for everyone in county government. Every department is financially strapped and many are short-staffed. And virtually every taxpaying customer each deals with wants their project approved first, their permit processed now, their road fixed pronto.

Considering the landfill closure's checkered past, supervisors Terri Murrison and Liz Bass were against hiring the Sacramento firm to design the repair work because it had not given a definite deadline for when its work should be done. But they were outvoted. So it is up to Rei to keep this firm on task and see that the repair work be squarely on a fast track.

Without a doubt, the effort to close the landfill, now a wincing 12 years long, has been more convoluted than anyone back in 1995 would have ever predicted. But short of genuine catastrophe, no excuse can be used for not getting the sealing repairs done by year's end — so the landfill saga itself can finally and thankfully end.

Union Democrat editorial positions are formed through regular meetings of the newspaper's editorial board — Publisher Geoff White, Managing Editor Patty Fuller and senior reporter-columnist Chris Bateman.