As the proposed John Smith Road Landfill expansion project is moving through the approval process, a group of San Benito County residents is voicing their opposition. Members of “Don’t Dump On San Benito” have raised environmental concerns surrounding the project and are urging county officials to scrap the landfill expansion proposal.
The expansion was first proposed in 2021 by Waste Connections Inc., the owners of the John Smith Road Landfill, and its local subsidiary Waste Solutions Group of San Benito LLC. The project includes the existing 90 acre John Smith Road Landfill, an adjacent 388 acre expansion area owned by the Waste Connections; a 5-acre facility owned by the City of Hollister and 70 acres of county-owned land across from the current landfill entrance.
The expansion would “increase the landfill’s capacity, expand the total waste footprint, increase the maximum elevation of the final landfill, increase the maximum permitted daily tonnage from 1,000 tons per day (tpd) to the proposed 2,300 (tpd) or lower tonnage approved by the County, and identify the haul route for commercial trucks,’’ according to a county staff report.
The landfill would operate for 50 years until 2074, after which it would operate until 2089, when it is expected to reach capacity.
The approval process is in its final stages following the submission of an environmental impact report (EIR) in September. Under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), an EIR must address any potential environmental impacts and what would be done to mitigate these.
The report laid out what it calls “significant and unavoidable environmental impacts” pertaining to greenhouse gas emissions, the area’s visual character and the overall air quality.
It’s these “unavoidable impacts” that Don’t Dump On San Benito have rallied against. Group members say the increased capacity of an expanded landfill would serve as a giant dumping ground for other regional counties that already truck in their refuse. An expansion roughly three times the size of the current site would leave San Benito County residents to deal with the detrimental impacts, the group says.
“To straddle us with a mega dump for other counties? That’s a social injustice,” says Maureen Nelson, co-chair of Don’t Dump On San Benito.
The landfill, located at 2650 John Smith Road, is in an unincorporated area of San Benito County. Out-of-area hauls make up about 80% of the daily tonnage and bring significantly less revenue to the county. Out-of-county tipping, or dump fees, are almost $20 less per ton than what is charged to San Benito County residents. Currently, county residents pay about $58 per ton; out-of county residents pay between $20-$40.
An increase of more than double the daily tonnage of waste will bring a significant uptick in air pollution, according to the EIR.
“[Although] the regulations in place are designed to improve air quality over time and to result in a net reduction in air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions, the proposed project would cumulatively contribute criteria air pollutants and greenhouse gas emissions to the air basin,” says the EIR. Waste that accumulates in landfills produces methane gas, which is a greenhouse pollutant.
Waste Connections has tried to address other environmental issues at the project site in their proposal. If allowed to expand its operation to the 2,300 tpd capacity, the company would do a “clean close” of a former liquid hazardous materials dump located on the five acres owned by the City of Hollister. The site has been shuttered since 1992 and Waste Connections would unearth the hazardous material to transfer it to an appropriate disposal site.
The company has also proposed the construction of a renewable natural gas facility that it says would convert 92% of the methane produced by the landfill into natural gas.
Nelson thinks Waste Connections is making promises it won’t keep and likens their proposed mitigation efforts to a carrot on a stick.
“You can have this carrot when you get there. But it seems to keep going further, and further and further away. And what is the chance that we would ever get there? “ Nelson says.
Another concern stemming from the increased waste tonnage capacity is the wear and tear on John Smith Road and other connecting roads from a higher volume of haulers making trips.
According to a county report, it would cost about $26 million to prepare the proposed haul route for the 2,300 daily tonnage traffic. This would be split between the county and Waste Connections. Repairs and maintenance over 18 years would cost the county over $4 million.
Alternatives to the main proposal have been included in the project plan, including reducing the target waste capacity to 1,700 tpd, and the building of an off site transfer station that would keep landfill capacity the same.
The building of a new landfill on 101 acres of county land across from the current landfill is also an option. However, Waste Connections is vying for the 388 acre expansion as the ideal project.
For members of Don’t Dump On San Benito, a no-landfill option is the best option. But they insist that their opposition to the expansion is rooted in care for the community.
“We are not a NIMBY Group. We are an environmental awareness group that is concerned about the impacts that this has on the County of San Benito as a whole. It’s not just an impact that it has on one certain area or a small geographical area. It is the county as a whole,” Nelson said.
Considering the contention around the matter, county officials are proceeding deliberately. After holding the public hearings in October, the planning commission is pushing the process out to January 2024. Planning Commission chair Robert Gibson says that whatever the decision it will have implications for decades to come.
“It’s a project that could impact the county for 65 years or so. And I think giving it as much time as the commission thinks it needs to understand the impacts and what we would be getting in exchange for the impacts is important,” Gibson says.
“There’s a lot of details; there’s the impact to roads,there’s the impacts to the environment,” Gibson added. “And the trade off, according to the EIR, is that there’s a benefit to the community in the money that the county would get.”
At the Oct. 30 public hearing, Gibson floated the idea that a decision over the landfill could be taken to a public vote in an upcoming election. That would require a motion by the county board of supervisors, but it is yet unclear if that is a path it is exploring.
The next planning commission special meeting regarding the John Smith Road Landfill expansion will be on Jan. 24.