By Kiley Russell
Bay City News Foundation
NAPA (CBS SF/BCN) — As Napa County’s only landfill is poised to take in tons of debris from this year’s massive LNU Lightning Complex fires, it has also found itself in the middle of a debate about whether it should continue to stay open at all.
At the center of the debate is St. Helena Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, who for months has been taking aim at the operation and oversight of Clover Flat Landfill, which has a history of environmental and fire violations dating back several years.
Ellsworth, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, has engaged in a steady back-and-forth with Clover Flat management and some of
his fellow elected officials over whether the facility represents an unacceptable threat to the environment and to the health and safety of local residents.
He says he is pushing for a region-wide conversation about the possibility of somehow moving the landfill or closing it and using a
different facility given the fire-prone nature of the current location and its location atop the Napa River watershed.
“In the Napa Valley our brand and our product is based in water and the land, so for this type of thing to show up here is unacceptable,” Ellsworth said of the potential impacts the landfill could have on the wine industry. “And what assurances do I have as a mayor that people are going to be OK?”
Ellsworth says his concerns are amplified by the fact that the landfill was severely damaged by the recent Glass Fire and is now permitted
to take in debris from homes and businesses destroyed in the devastating LNU Lightning Complex fires.
“This is additionally concerning since it was the increased volume of fire debris from the Tubbs Fire that spurred many of the problems in 2018 and 2019 that led to the shutdown of this landfill in the spring of 2019,” he said.
While Ellsworth’s views have attracted significant support — notably from the environmental community — the landfill’s management and
some government officials accuse Ellsworth of political grandstanding and say the disposal area has successfully addressed weaknesses in its operation.
An inspector with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of the agencies that oversees landfills, did in fact issue emergency clean-up and abatement orders after finding a toxic mixture of water and landfill contaminants called leachate flowing into a nearby creek that indirectly feeds the Napa River.
At least part of Clover Flat’s leachate violations originated in an area of the landfill that contained fire debris.
“They did not place some of that debris correctly,” said Alyx Karpowicz, the Water Board inspector who issued the orders. “But the majority of the leachate things that became a problem were on the older, closed areas (of the landfill) that hadn’t been filled in decades.”
The leachate violations were severe enough for county officials to temporarily close the landfill and issue a health advisory warning people tokeep clear of the creeks and river.
Bryce Howard, the landfill’s general manager, said the collection and storage system was inadequate to cope with the volume of leachate
generated by the landfill at the time, and it simply began to leak and overflow.
“The system was overtaxed for a period of time and it took some time, but we mitigated that,” Howard said.
The landfill was also required to complete mitigation work after construction of an access road inside the facility resulted in a sediment discharge into the same nearby creek.
“We recognize we are responsible for the sediment release so we’ve taken steps to correct that,” Howard said.
Also, after buying three portable tanks in order to add water capacity for fire control, the landfill operators discovered they were coated with “naturally occurring shale oils” that contained radioactive materials.
Some landfill employees were exposed, and at least one required hospitalization after exhibiting symptoms of radiation poisoning, Howard
“That employee has fully recovered and is back at work,” he said, adding that the radioactive materials have been cleaned up and removed from the facility.
Additionally, in 2018 the landfill was the site of a series of fires, at least two or three of which required a response by Cal Fire crews.
In the wake of these incidents, the county’s Environmental Health Division and fire marshal “issued permit violations and asked us to do a
series of corrective actions, which have all been completed now,” Howard said.
Some of the new measures included covering the landfill and side slopes with dirt every day, setting a 24-hour fire watch during fire season, installing a new high-capacity water tank and fire hydrants to be used exclusively for fire suppression and adding a “fire watch camera” operated by a third party as part of a pilot program.
Since implementing these changes, no fires have started within the landfill.
Also, in the aftermath of all of those incidents, the landfill changed management teams and has been working closely with the Water Board
and Napa County, Karpowicz said.
“They’re always very open and transparent,” Karpowicz said. “They’re very accommodating, and they want to make sure I’m 100 percent kept
in the loop because they are also very aware of their public image.”