Trash will be obsolete within a few decades if the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority has its way. “Our approach is to get out of the landfill business,” says Assistant General Manager Jose Gamboa. “We want to get into manufacturing and the energy sector.”
The waste authority is looking to pioneer trash-to-power industries, including a controversial gasification plant proposed by Ottawa-based Plasco Energy Group. But SVSWA’s fast pace of embracing new technology isn’t catching on with the Monterey County Board of Supervisors.
“Monterey County has been concerned for some time regarding the direction of the Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority with respect to its finances, and the collection and disposal of waste within its jurisdictional boundaries,” supervisors Simon Salinas and Lou Calcagno wrote in a July 13 letter to the SVSWA board.
The letter gives one-year notice to the waste authority of the county’s intent to withdraw from SVSWA, a joint powers authority that includes a vast area from unincorporated North County to Salinas and South County cities.
The supervisors will spend a year assessing the costs and benefits of staying in the waste authority, with a final determination due in mid-2013. Calcagno and Salinas both want to consider merging with SVSWA’s coastal counterpart, the Monterey Regional Waste Management District, which operates a single landfill just north of Marina.
“It doesn’t make too much sense for the people in North County and Salinas to truck their garbage all the way to Johnson Canyon,” Calcagno says. “They’re only 10 miles away from Marina.”
The waste authority’s Johnson Canyon landfill has about 35 years of capacity left, while MRWMD’s has about 150 years, and accepts waste from Santa Cruz and Santa Clara counties. “We are able to accommodate more waste for disposal,” MRWMD General Manager William Merry says.
Merry’s also interested in waste-to-energy technology, and expects an anaerobic digester pilot project to be up and running this fall. But he says each entity has its own long-range strategy: “Salinas Valley Solid Waste Authority has a particular vision. They envision there will not be waste one day.”
When SVSWA formed in 1997, it inherited two county landfills and two from the city of Salinas. Since then, they’ve cut back on garbage by 31 percent and shut down three of four landfills, but still spend millions maintaining those landfills to keep them in environmental compliance.
“When the authority was born, it was born bleeding in the red,” Gamboa says. Of its $15.7 million budget, 72 percent goes toward landfill and disposal expenses. At MRWMD, landfilling accounts for just 24 percent of their annual budget.
Landfillers collect money for garbage, so as recycling increases and trash volumes decline, waste districts are struggling with falling revenues. The waste authority board voted 6-1 in June to approve rate hikes of 4.7 percent, down from a recommended 14 percent.
Prior to that increase, rates had only gone up by 2 percent in four years. “Your phone bills and most utilities have gone up far more than the authority’s,” Gamboa says.
Meanwhile, Plasco’s hoping the state nails down a definition of gasification as green energy. CalRecycle recently reneged on a 2010 legal opinion that would’ve included gasification in the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, allowing Plasco to charge a premium.
Without that designation, Plasco vice president Alisdair McLean says the plant’s not economically viable. Gov. Jerry Brown’s staff has voiced support for Plasco, but the legislative session ends August 31 and there’s currently no pending bill that would apply the green energy designation.