What Happened and Why
By John D. Moore, NCRA Vice President and Legal Counsel, and Alameda County Source Reduction and Recycling Board Environmental Organization Member
Editors note: The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of NCRA or the Recycling Board.
In 2011, Waste Management (WM) obtained a permit from the City of San Leandro for expanded composting and anaerobic digestion at its Davis Street Transfer Station (DSTS). For California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance in 2011, San Leandro issued a negative declaration. As part of the 2011 permitting process WM obtained an amendment to the County Integrated Waste Management Plan (CoIWMP) that describes its 2011 plans. In 2017, WM decided it wanted to perform mixed waste composting at DSTS instead of what was approved in 2011. WM needed another amendment to the CoIWMP that described its 2017 plans and needed the Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA and StopWaste) to approve that amendment. In conjunction with this proposed CoIWMP amendment, the ACWMA was required to consider CEQA again and decide whether or not to require environmental review resulting from the project changes since 2011 and whether these changes posed significant potential adverse environmental impact. Stopwaste found that there had been no changes to the project since 2011 so that no further CEQA review was required. Arthur Boone and Dr. Toni Stein objected to the CEQA determination before the ACWMA, hired private counsel at their own expense and filed suit under CEQA for the ACWMA’s refusal to perform further environmental review.
First, the Court tentatively ruled in favor of Boone and Stein although its tentative ruling did not read like much of an endorsement of their suit. After oral argument the Court changed its mind and ruled in favor of the County and WM. Then, Boone/Stein asked Judge Ronni McLaren to reconsider her ruling, which she did. In Judge McLaren’s reconsidered ruling she again tentatively ruled in favor of Boone/Stein; this time in a more committed fashion. But, after oral argument, Judge McLaren changed her mind yet again and ruled in favor of the County and WM.
Why did Judge McLaren change her mind so much? There is no way to know for sure. At the start of the first hearing Judge McLaren announced that this was the first CEQA case that she had ever decided. That said, it appeared that Judge McLaren spent a lot of time and effort reviewing and considering the law. CEQA has two competing underlying policies: one is for full public transparency and disclosure of potential significant environmental impacts of proposed projects; the other is finality of public agency decisions about the project. CEQA requires the Court to give a lot of deference to public agency fact finding concerning CEQA evaluations. Stopwaste found that there had been no change in the project since 2011. I think Judge McLaren realized that this was just untrue and that the current proposed project never had a full CEQA review, but could not see what potential environmental impacts would result from the project changes that had been raised before the ACWMA. Judge McLaren had to follow the law requiring deference to Stopwaste’s determination of no project changes. The Court’s review was also limited to objections actually made at the agency hearing which focused more on air emissions than zero waste issues. .
Boone and Stein could appeal and argue that Judge McLaren applied the wrong legal standard in her decision. Courts of Appeal likewise give much deference to a trial court’s factual finding, i.e. that the administrative record before the ACWMA did not show potential significant environmental impacts from the changes in the project. Statistically, I think that the odds are very high that Boone/Stein would lose in a court of appeal.
Any other ways to challenge the WM project? WM has a 2011 permit from the City of San Leandro. The DSTS is also bound by a master plan including the site, which was approved by the City of San Leandro in 1998. If the current project violates either of these approvals, a possible challenge exists but a very quick statute of limitations is running on such a challenge.
What sort of further environmental review should have occurred? Recognizing that the project did change from 2011 and that mixed waste composting had not yet been tried in the US, potential environmental impacts of poor quality of output compost and the possible negative impact on source separation are things I think should have been studied. After the ACWMA hearing there was media coverage of the dissatisfaction of several European countries with mixed waste composting because of claimed poor quality of the output. A press release in connection with these reports coined the phrase “Compost-like output” or CLOs when discussing compost made from mixed waste.
Would that have made any difference, if known by the ACWMA? To me that seems unlikely. The ACWMA is a joint powers agency made up of all of the cities within the county plus two sanitary districts that provide for solid waste and recyclables collection. As a political body, its decisions are sometimes made for political reasons and it is possible under CEQA for a public agency to approve a project no matter how bad the disclosed environmental impacts would be. That said, one member of the ACWMA, the City of Oakland, was heavily invested in the approval of the mixed waste composting facility at DSTS because it is part of its franchise agreement with WM. Do I think that a majority of the ACWMA members would have voted to deny approval of a project so important to the largest city within the County? I think that is unlikely. The realistic best outcome would have been to impose some quality requirements in the compost output. WM told the ACWMA that its compost would meet certification requirements of one of the NGOs that certify compost. But this promise is not stated in any of the permits.
In hindsight, NCRA should have appeared at the ACWMA CoIWMP amendment hearing and raised concerns about source separation and compost quality, if only to ask the ACWMA to impose permit conditions relating to these concerns. I feel like in hindsight I should have pushed more in that direction. These concerns might ultimately have convinced Judge McLaren to insist upon more environmental review of the mixed waste processing component. But in the end I think the ACWMA would have approved the project anyway.
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