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August 1, 2006 > The wayward wind

The wayward wind

by Steve Warga

On Wednesday, July 19, Alameda County Waste Management Authority board members voted 14 to 3 in favor of a resolution stating, in part, "that the Alameda County Waste Management Authority shall cease pursuit of the project on Andrade Road in Sunol ..." Where they may go next remains to be seen.

Any assessment of staff competency in the proposed Sunol Valley composting facility fiasco must take into account that such a project requires a vast and confusing array of reports, forms, applications and permits from a maze of oversight agencies. But then, people like Executive Director Karen Smith and Senior Program Manager Brian Mathews of Alameda County Waste Management Authority (ACWMA), are employed to navigate these bureaucratic webs. Once directed to a particular project, they command substantial resources to carry out their assigned tasks. When considering the fate of the Sunol site, it is reasonable to ask, Why did ACWMA staff spend three years and well over $2.5 million of public money only to encounter grassroots opposition that successfully questioned and defeated use of a flawed Environmental Impact Report?

Of all the papers required, the key document in such a project is the Environmental Impact Report (EIR), a lengthy, involved, highly specialized summation of conceivable influences or impacts upon properties and sensibilities. For something as potentially offensive as a garbage processing plant, extensive studies of wind, rain and groundwater capacities were fundamental necessities.

Yet, it appears the staff of ACWMA failed to conduct adequate testing of these basic questions. When ACWMA was directed to collect data "onsite," they failed - again - by collecting data from a location other than the site proposed on Andrade Road. Insistence on gathering data away from the site is inexplicable and was found unacceptable to agencies charged with approving or denying the project as well as their own oversight board.

The more blatant failures are documented in letters submitted to ACWMA by two major oversight agencies: Bay Area Air Quality Management District (BAAQMD) and, California Integrated Waste Management Board (CIWMB). The former agency drafted a letter dated, Jan. 27, 2005 in which they expressed numerous and substantial concerns with the draft EIR (DEIR). In their comments, BAAQMD described specific remedies ACWMA could follow that would substantially improve their chances of receiving two critical permits from the Air Quality Board, an "Authority to Construct" and a "Permit to Operate." Without these certifications, ACWMA would not be able to even begin building a genuine, functioning composting facility.

Of primary concern to BAAQMD were airborne odors and the more serious question of toxic air containments. Assessing the impact of both required the collection and charting of wind and rain patterns. The DEIR contained considerable data of wind patterns, all carefully charted and documented. It looked impressive and suggested that wind patterns at the Sunol Valley site would work in favor of odor and particulate dispersion.

But there was a problem. The data was collected from the Hayward Airport! This airport lies on the western shore of the San Francisco Bay, over 15 air miles from Andrade Road. Its weather and wind patterns are dominated by the bay. The Diablo Range of the Pacific Coast mountains divide the airport from the Sunol Valley and cause considerable changes in weather and wind patterns between the two sites. There is no correlation between wind patterns at the Hayward Airport and those at the Andrade Road site. With remarkable restraint, the BAAQMD report dryly noted, "The DEIR's use of meteorological data from the Hayward Airport is inappropriate for the proposed facility location." What else could they conclude? The Hayward Airport data was irrelevant to the DEIR's stated intent.

Given that wind patterns are the primary agent for transmission of both odors and airborne pollutants, BAAQMD wanted to see extensive samplings of wind patterns from the proposed site. Three separate times they specifically stated their requirement for "onsite" data. They clearly stated their desire for 12 full months of data and went further: "District staff should be consulted on the selection of appropriate equipment, siting, and maintenance of the meteorological station."

A year and a half later, ACWMA staff presented a final EIR (FEIR), one that supposedly addressed the concerns raised by BAAQMD and other agencies. This document contained the final calculations and data needed to secure the various permits required. But, the report still got it wrong. Wind data presented in the FEIR was collected from a tower on a ridge about 1.5 miles north of Andrade Road and about 150 feet higher. From the same BAAQMD memo, it was noted, "While the District does maintain a meteorological station nearby in Sunol, district staff also do not recommend the use of data collected from that station because the Sunol station's canyon orientation and height are not representative of the proposed site."

After reading and, presumably, studying the BAAQMD memo, Smith, Mathews and staff went out to the Sunol Valley and commenced recording wind data from the very tower the Air Board said not to use because it was "not representative" of the proposed Andrade Road site. When the time came to formally endorse the FEIR in May 2006, ACWMA staff, in the person of attorney E. Clement Shute, Jr., asked for a delay in approving the FEIR to allow more time to collect wind data from the proposed site. This was requested after 18 months and very clear directions from BAAQMD.

Shute's San Francisco law firm, Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP, wrote both the DEIR and the FEIR. How did they manage to misinterpret very specific comments and recommendations from BAAQMD, whose permits ACWMA must have before building and operating any compost facility in the Bay Area? As of July 19, Shute remained on retainer with ACWMA.

Next week: The strange case of the missing pages.

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