Source: http://www.mercurynews.com, December 10, 2011
By: Paul Rogers
The owner of a San Jose landfill is facing one of the largest water pollution fines ever issued in the Bay Area by state regulators, following a spill of thousands of gallons of foul-smelling liquid last December into a creek at Almaden Quicksilver County Park.
Waste Management, which owns the Guadalupe Recycling and Disposal Facility in South San Jose, was hit with a civil penalty of $882,200 last month by the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, based in Oakland.
The company has until Feb. 8 to plead its case and negotiate a settlement with the board, which is the primary state agency that administers the Clean Water Act and state water pollution laws in California.
The spill drew significant public attention last year during the week of Christmas, because it resulted in the closure of the western part of Almaden Quicksilver County Park for nine days.
According to the water board, the pollution began Dec. 20, when an above-ground storage tank at the landfill overflowed. The tank is used to store condensate, a type of liquid condensation that accumulates in gas pipes as gas cools. An energy facility at the landfill uses pipes and wells to extract methane gas from the accumulated garbage, burning it to run engines that generate electricity. That electricity is distributed on the power grid and sold.
The condensate, which is normally burned in a flare or trucked off the site, overflowed from the storage tank and washed down a hill during a rainstorm, where it mixed with stormwater in a holding pond. Investigators from the water board estimate that 86,220 gallons of stormwater, mixed with the foul-smelling liquid, then poured into a tributary of McAbee Creek, which runs through the park near the Senador Mine.
“Clearly it created a nuisance condition in the park,” said Brian Thompson, senior enforcement specialist with the water board. “Our interest is protecting public health and resources.”
Although no fish or wildlife were found dead after the spill, and no drinking water was contaminated, tests taken during the three days after the event showed the liquid contained a number of pollutants, including naphtalene, 2-methylnaphtalene, PCB-1221, copper, mercury, nickel and zinc in excess of state and federal standards.
“It all flows downstream,” said Thompson. “It would have been diluted, but it all flowed to the bay.”
A spokesman for Waste Management said the incident was the fault of another company, Guadalupe Energy LLC, which leases roughly an acre on the property to run the methane gas operation.
“We are working with them to find an equitable resolution between the two companies,” said Ken Lewis, Waste Management’s director of disposal operations in Northern California. “We do feel they are liable for the spill.”
Lewis said that a worker employed by Guadalupe Energy looked at the tank on a Saturday, the day before the spill, and decided he didn’t need to burn off liquid until later in the week. Whether he made an error in reading the level of the tank is unclear, Lewis said, but when Waste Management employees came to work on Monday morning, they saw the liquid had overflowed into the creek.
Lewis said that Waste Management workers pumped roughly 150,000 gallons of contaminated stormwater from the holding pond and carted away contaminated soil. He said that of the 86,000 gallons of polluted water mentioned by water board investigators, only about 2,000 gallons was condensate.
“Given our aggressive response and the cooperation we’ve had with the water board, we’re disappointed in the direction the water board had gone with the significance of the fine,” Lewis said. “We believe it should be reduced.”
The company that owns the methane facility said it bears no liability.
Guadalupe Energy “is not the responsible party,” said Tom Gesicki, managing director of Fortistar LLC, a company based in White Plains, N.Y., that owns Guadalupe Energy.
Asked how Waste Management could be at fault if his company operated the site where the spill originated, Gesicki declined to go into detail, saying only: “We believe the water board has acted properly.”
Water board records show that in February, Guadalupe Energy installed an overflow alarm on the tank and built a containment area, reducing the risk of future spills.
As for the liability, Thompson, of the water board, noted that it ultimately rests with the land owner. The water board staff will hear Waste Management’s case and make a final decision. The size of the penalty can be appealed to the water board itself, which is made of seven people appointed by the governor. If the $882,200 fine — computed based on the size of the spill — is upheld, it would be one of the largest penalties issued by the agency.
The biggest, $1.9 million, came earlier this year when Palmaz Vineyards in Napa was penalized by the agency for filling in wetlands. However, under a settlement, Palmaz was able to offset $1.7 million of that by paying to restore the wetlands.