The main garbage dump for northern Napa Valley, the Clover Flat Landfill, caught fire last month; not surprising, as it is located near the epicenter of the Glass Fire that devastated the area.
But the landfill has also caught fire on its own at least 13 times since July 2013, a former Napa County fire chief told the Napa Register. It has also released contaminated water into a Napa river tributary, and it improperly handled radioactive materials that led in one case to a worker being hospitalized.
|Wineries Harvest while Wine Country Burns|
|Napa's Problem is Cars, Not Drought|
|Napa Plan Denounced as "Land Grab"|
Now, as state agencies assess damages to the landfill from the Glass Fire, St Helena mayor Geoff Ellsworth thinks it should be a wakeup call for northern Napa County to consider dumping its garbage someplace else.
"My intention here is to get a discussion going about a better way forward," Ellsworth told Wine-Searcher. "We have a crop that's dependent on good, clean water. Landfills are inherently dangerous. They leak. They have fire danger. We keep this landfill in this high fire-risk canyon. The river that flows through there irrigates Napa Valley grapes. Why keep this? Let's reach out to experts and say, what's a better way?"
The Clover Flat Landfill is run by a private company. Its owners, the Pestoni family, also own Pestoni Family Winery in St. Helena.
Chief operating officer Christy Pestoni did not want to talk about violations or safety issues at the landfill.
"We're not doing any interviews on this," Pestoni told Wine-Searcher. "The landfill is open and compliant with all regulatory agencies. We're open seven days a week and we're accepting fire debris."
Clover Flat Landfill plays more than one important role in the wine community: in addition to taking in garbage, it also produces and sells organic compost from winery grape pomace.
But the landfill has been under fire from the local government and media for a while, with several stories in the Napa Register.
In August 2018, after the landfill caught fire for the third time in a year, the Napa County Local Enforcement Agency ordered the landfill to stop accepting "green waste" until it had taken more fire-prevention steps. In 2017, the landfill had been ordered to keep water on hand to help fight fires; that had not been done before the August 2018 fire.
In March 2019, the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board issued the landfill a notice of violation for releasing leachate into a creek. Leachate is water that has extracted solids from other materials; from a landfill, it can contain chemicals and heavy metals. The Napa County Public Health Officer advised the public not to use the water from the creek, or even to touch it.
In April 2019, the local government agency that oversees the landfill declared it to be a breach of contract.
"This is the first step of a process that would allow for the revocation of the contract," agency manager Steven Lederer told the Napa Register. "But the contract allows them to cure the breaches before that happens."
In fact, the contract has not been revoked, even though Ellsworth points out that it is a no-bid, non-competitive contract. Lederer did not respond to a request from Wine-Searcher for comment.
"Competitive bidding is supposed to keep things on an even keel," Ellsworth said. "As we saw with PG&E, when you don't have competitive bidding, maybe things go in a direction that you don't want them to go. I was elected to protect my town. There's a landfill six miles away in a high fire area. A landfill has gases, explosive gases. I'm trying to make the argument, why are we continuing to fuel that by bringing more waste up there?"
In May 2019, a chemical reaction between improperly disposed materials caused an explosion that sent a worker to the hospital, Pestoni admitted to the Napa Register.
Now that we're far enough down in the story where Napa Valley Vintners won't complain about it being overly sensationalized, let's consider one of Ellsworth's points: does a region famous for its wine want radioactive waste in its groundwater?
The radioactive waste problem came about because the landfill bought three used 21,000-gallon frac tanks, intending to store leachate runoff in them. Employees removed sludge from the frac tanks and put it in 55-gallon drums for disposal. But the sludge turned out to be radioactive, and at least one of the employees had symptoms of radiation exposure. The landfill put the three leachate tanks into a taped-off area.
After the Glass Fire, a state inspection found that "the leachate collection system, mainly piping has been burned throughout. Flames were observed coming from the gravity leachate pipe outlet." That was only some of the damage; the equipment maintenance building, recycling buyback center and oil collection center were burned. All vegetation around the landfill burned. Erosion control measures recently placed along hills and creeks were burned. Power lines throughout the facility burned.
Fortunately, "The leachate collection tanks were not damaged."
"When you hear the words 'radioactive waste,' that should make it an urgent state," Ellsworth said. "It was not removed for a year. It sat up there."
In January, environmentalist Chris Malan asked at a Napa County Board of Supervisors meeting if the landfill shouldn't be closed as soon as possible. The supervisors demurred, in part because northern Napa County has to send its garbage somewhere.
The Clover Flat Landfill receives all the commercial and residential waste from the northern part of the county, including Calistoga, St Helena and Yountville. The cities of Napa and American Canyon, in the south part of the county, use different waste-management systems.
"We've got tens of thousands of people that depend on the water in this area. That have an investment in this area," Ellsworth said. "If you look back at the indigenous people, everybody knew that you protect the upriver. You don't foul the upriver. That comes right to you. It's happening at the top of our watershed. This is the source. These are the headwaters. Why are we still doing it this way? We are world famous for our agriculture. Why are we risking this product, when we don't have to? That's not to say we want to put our garbage onto somebody else. But we have to deal with it throughout. Is there a place to put a landfill that's not as high a fire risk?"