RIVERSIDE, Calif. - Assured that a thorough environmental assessment was in the works, Riverside County Supervisor Jeff Stone today dropped a proposal to hold hearings on plans to expand a Coachella Valley recycling facility that some residents fear could turn into an odoriferous mess.
Reacting to comments made during the Board of Supervisors' off-site meeting last week in Palm Desert, Stone appended a request to the board agenda seeking public testimony about waste hauler and processor Burrtec's desire to enlarge a composting site on county-owned property near Indio.
Stone titled his request ``Promote Responsible Outreach To Expanding Composting Terrain (PROTECT) in Coachella and Indio.''
``I placed this before us not because I felt a duty to do so, but because I received calls from officials asking that it be placed on the agenda so it could be dealt with by the entire board,'' Stone said.
According to Stone, residents complained that the project was moving too swiftly toward approval and there were concerns it could end up a debacle on the scale of Cal Bio-Mass, which resulted in $850,000 in direct or indirect costs to the county due to the ensuing clean-up.
The Cal Bio-Mass composting facility, located in Thermal, was abandoned earlier this year after the operator ran afoul air quality inspectors and area residents for trucking in tons of grease to mix with waste, creating noxious odors.
Indio and Coachella residents voiced concerns, Stone said, after learning that Burrtec intended to increase the size of its composting space to facilitate processing 800 tons of organic material daily, compared to 250 tons now, with truck trips averaging 536 per day, compared to 169 currently.
``This truly does deserve an environmental impact report so that all impacts can be articulated and mitigation measures can be commented on or suggested,'' Stone said.
Indio City Councilman Sam Torres agreed, telling the board that the scope of the project raised the ``need to vet it fully.''
However, both Torres and Indio Mayor Elaine Holmes observed that Burrtec's reputation was unspotted and the company's intentions appeared to align with the community's interests.
Board Chairman John Benoit, who represents the Coachella Valley, thanked Stone for his ``newfound interest'' in the area but assured him and other board members that the Burrtec project would be the subject of a complete environmental assessment.
Benoit said claims that the expansion plan had been placed on the county's ``fast-track'' list, enabling it to receive expedited handling during the permitting phase, were erroneous. Benoit also took issue with comparisons between Burrtec and Cal Bio-Mass.
``That is grossly unfair and inaccurate,'' Benoit said. ``Cal Bio-Mass did everything exactly wrong. Burrtec has managed this operation for years. They're helping us meet our recycling goals.''
Benoit said the waste hauler had held at least a half-dozen community meetings between Aug. 8 and Sept. 30 to bring residents up to speed on the expansion plan, and there would be more to come.
Stone said the timing of the meetings fueled suspicions of underhandedness, with many residents out of town to escape the late-summer heat and unable to attend.
``People were saying they're trying to rush this through,'' Stone said.
``But there needs to be more analysis. A full EIR should show how we're going to dispose of waste in a proper way. I'm glad people shared their concerns with the board.''
Stone joined Benoit in a motion to table PROTECT after the board agreed it was no longer necessary.