No place for green waste

Old Durham Wood stops accepting green waste, leaving limited disposal options

Tim Merrill, chief operations officer for Old Durham Wood Inc., says the facility off Highway 99 has stopped accepting green waste and will limit its composting operations.

Tim Merrill, chief operations officer for Old Durham Wood Inc., says the facility off Highway 99 has stopped accepting green waste and will limit its composting operations.


Driving his white pickup through the Old Durham Wood Inc. facility off Highway 99, Tim Merrill pointed to row after row of compost being produced there. Sometime this year, Merrill, chief operations officer for the business, says all of it will be gone, most of it packaged and sold as soil conditioner.

As of July 20, the facility has stopped accepting green waste—such as lawn clippings, prunings, leaves, dead plants, the things an average user would put in a green waste bin at home—from the public. That includes professional landscapers, tree trimmers and homeowners. Old Durham Wood continues to accept woody material. It plans to cease composting during winter.

The move has affected businesses and homeowners alike, and it highlights the already limited local options for dumping and processing green waste, an issue city and county officials say is a statewide problem.

Merrill points to a combination of state and federal regulations pertaining to composting facilities and land use for the shift. State mandates—such as retaining stormwater runoff associated with composting on-site—have proven too costly, he said.

The facility, according to Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board documents reviewed by the CN&R, had been cited for water discharge violations over the past two years. Further, the Butte County District Attorney’s Office investigated the company for environmental violations, finding evidence suggesting it allowed polluted wastewater to travel into nearby Hamlin Slough.

Merrill said that while Old Durham Wood has until 2022 to comply with the state water regulations, the money it would take—upward of $9.5 million, according to the company—to address environmental concerns is unrealistic.

“It was a very difficult decision to shut down [green waste],” he said. “It’s extremely frustrating, but it seems that—between local, the state and the feds—they have an inability to come up with a solution, which is a tragedy because, one again, our community suffers.”

District Attorney Mike Ramsey told the CN&R that his office has been in a “holding pattern” regarding any possible charges, waiting to see whether Old Durham Wood shuts down its green waste operations or mitigates the environmental concerns.

Over his nearly three decades in the residential landscaping business, Bryan Hanson, owner of Hanson & Hanson Landscaping in Chico, says local green waste disposal options have become costlier and harder to find.

He had used Old Durham Wood to dispose of green waste since the city-owned compost facility near the Chico Municipal Airport placed restrictions on the amount of such refuse it will accept. (See “Waiting on waste,” Newslines, Aug. 16, 2018.) The city facility allows the disposal of 1 cubic yard of green waste per customer per week—a far cry from the 10 cubic yards Hanson estimated his business generates per day.

The next closest option is the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility, which accepts green waste but is pricier, Hanson said. Disposal fees that once totaled about $68 per load for the company at Old Durham Wood cost nearly $200 at the Neal Road facility, he said.

The rising costs would be passed on to customers in some form, he said. Some have green waste bins, but they may not be adequate for the work done on their properties. Hanson said he may be forced to leave green waste behind for customers to deal with. He and Merrill speculated there could be a rise in illegal dumping of green stuff on sleepy country roads.

“I know they’re not going to want to pay the dump fee for it, because it’s going to be astronomical,” Hanson said, adding that the Neal Road facility charges the same rate, about $42 per ton, for the disposal of both garbage and green waste.

Todd Storti, deputy director of waste management for Butte County, said the perception that processing green waste costs less than trash is “skewed,” adding that the equipment required is pricey.

Nevertheless, Storti said the county is aware of the lack of disposal options locally. He said county officials are in the “planning phases” of developing long-term solutions and cost-effective options for the community. Ideally, he said, the county would develop its own green waste processing facility.

Multiple variables, he said, are at play, including the lack of a market for green waste materials, which can be used for compost or as fuel at cogeneration power plants.

Erik Gustafson, public works director of operations and maintenance for the city of Chico, said it’s the city’s understanding that it’s more cost effective for cogeneration plants to buy natural gas than green waste and wooded material, which had been another marketable stream but has since dried up.

He said the city compost facility accepts green waste and sells compost as a finished product. The rub is there is more green waste material coming in than can be composted or sold at market.

“It’s a problem,” he said, “and there’s a big regional effort to find solutions.”

Gustafson added that the city has fielded numerous complaints regarding green waste restrictions at the city facility, which is operated by Waste Management. Both parties, as part of ongoing contract extension talks, are looking at lifting the 1 cubic yard restriction, reopening the facility to unrestricted intake of green waste, he said.

The hope is to finalize a contract within the next several weeks, and lift volume restrictions soon after that, he said. Prices at the facility would be expected to rise to offset disposal costs. The intent is to be competitive with the landfill on Neal Road.

Green waste disposal, he said, is a “nationwide, statewide, regional problem we’re all dealing with.”