A divided Riverside County Board of Supervisors approved a plan Tuesday to remove foul waste from a Thermal composting site that has been the source of community complaints and the target of multiple citations for state regulatory violations.
In a 3-2 vote, the board authorized the county to enter into an agreement with Cal Bio-Mass Inc. that will permit the company to dump 54,000 tons of grease-laden recycled soil at the county's Oasis Landfill without having to pay an estimated $700,000 in tipping fees that would otherwise be collected for the waste to be accepted.
The agreement also calls for around $152,000 worth of county personnel
time and equipment to be utilized for the operation.
The proposed agreement was first broached by board Chairman John Benoit
three weeks ago, drawing immediate criticism from Supervisor Jeff Stone, who compared the county accommodations to a "gift of public funds" and an "abuse of public money."
Stone reiterated those concerns today, pointing to a section of the California Constitution that strictly forbids local governments from pledging money to cover the "liabilities of an individual."
Stone asserted that the company has not followed the law since it was granted a conditional use permit by the county to operate. "Now they're coming to the county and wanting us to subsidize their miscalculation? I spend thousands of dollars a year on the waste collected at my businesses, but I don't receive a subsidy from the county. This shouldn't be done at the ratepayers' expense," he said.
He noted that Cal Bio-Mass has been slapped with 176 state citations since 1996, mostly related to how the composting facility handles its recycled waste.
According to county Department of Environmental Health Director Stephen
Van Stockum, the number of air quality complaints have tapered off in recent
months because the mounds of odoriferous waste at the 30-acre CBM site have
been left dormant.
Most of the 80 "confirmed" complaints have originated from the Trilogy
retirement community in La Quinta, according to Benoit.
Stone argued that residents of the 55-and-over development received notice before moving in that they may be exposed to periodic malodors emanating
from the CBM facility. According to the supervisor, several residents had even
contacted him to express opposition to Benoit's proposal, which Stone characterized as a "political, not a legal problem."
Benoit's Fourth District encompasses both La Quinta and Thermal.
"This amounts to a nuisance," Stone said. "It's the same when agricultural parts of the county use manure as fertilizer and people in urbanized areas complain because there's this really obnoxious smell. This is not a health and safety emergency that qualifies for a gift of public funds."
County Counsel Pamela Walls said that because the "quality of life" of hundreds of county residents was being impacted by the recycling operation, it was a public health concern that required abatement. She disagreed with Stone's characterization of using county resources to address the issue as a gift of public money.
CBM's permit to keep the composting facility open expires in December
2014. With the business no longer "disturbing" the stink piles, Stone suggested tabling Benoit's proposal and letting the business handle its own trouble.
Supervisor Kevin Jeffries echoed the same sentiments. But Supervisors
Marion Ashley and John Tavaglione joined Benoit in voting for the agreement
"If the owner walks away, we could be left with abandonment costs running into the millions of dollars," Ashley said. "The problems could go on for months, maybe even years, before the situation is fixed. We have a responsibility to clean up and mitigate the problem."
Several county residents objected to the agreement, saying it highlights
deeper issues, such as a general misunderstanding by county officials of what
makes good compost.
"I think we've learned some valuable lessons from this," Benoit conceded.