‘They’re failing us’

California Open Lands director says Butte County landfill managers treat wetlands like ‘toilet’

Holly Nielsen, executive director of California Open Lands, shows wetlands area at the Butte County landfill on Neal Road.

Holly Nielsen, executive director of California Open Lands, shows wetlands area at the Butte County landfill on Neal Road.

Photo by Andre Byik

Holly Nielsen put her GMC pickup into gear and drove down a dirt road at the Butte County landfill south of Chico, heading toward a 3-acre wetland preserve that has been established inside the facility.

The on-site preserve was created in 2007, allowing the Neal Road Recycling and Waste Facility to finish its expansion. The preserve—which is overseen by California Open Lands, a local nonprofit land trust—also has been a focus of the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Enforcement, which is investigating the landfill for allegedly discharging last winter about 24 million gallons of waste-contaminated stormwater into the preserve and a neighboring watershed (see “Dirtying the waters,” Newslines, Feb. 27).

Nielsen, California Open Lands’ executive director, walked along the preserve’s cracked earth, pointing out dead and dying trees and the lack of vegetation, which has been replaced with weeds. The seasonal wetland had sustained various wildlife and plant species, including migratory waterfowl and tadpoles. Now, she said, the habitat is threatened.

During the CN&R’s visit to the site, Nielsen said Butte County, which owns and operates the landfill and manages the preserve, has been treating the wetland like a “toilet”—alleging the county knowingly allowed waste-contaminated water to flow into it, jeopardizing the watershed.

The state water board’s investigation also has placed a spotlight on the landfill’s managers, raising questions about whether they had been forthright with water regulators about the stormwater discharges in February 2019 and their dealings with California Open Lands, which is pursuing civil action against the county in federal court.

Nielsen said her experiences with management at the landfill have left her feeling disrespected, dismissed and deflated.

“It’s this hubris of the management,” Nielsen said. “What gives them the right to think that they can just dump all of this contamination in our water supply thinking that, Oh, well. We’ll get away with it. No harm done. Nobody will ever find out.

Both Butte County Public Works Director Dennis Schmidt and County Counsel Bruce Alpert declined the CN&R’s multiple efforts to seek comment from the county. Eric Miller, site manager at the landfill, also said he could not comment.

Nielsen described the landfill’s wetland as “degraded,” and said tests are underway to determine its health. Those results are pending. Meanwhile, regional and state water officials have been examining the landfill over the alleged unauthorized discharges of leachate—or waste-contaminated water—following rainstorms in February of last year.

In August 2019, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board issued a notice of violation to the county regarding noncompliance with its Waste Discharge Requirements Order. The violations included failure to immediately notify regulators of leachate seeps and unauthorized discharges of leachate, among others.

Central Valley Water Board documents note that the county did not timely report that on the morning of Feb. 14, 2019, a mountain of waste at the landfill—known as Module 4—sustained multiple “leachate pop-outs,” leading to waste-contaminated water flowing into a nearby pond meant to capture stormwater runoff.

Water from the then-contaminated pond was pumped to a ditch that drained into the landfill’s primary stormwater sedimentation basin, which includes the aforementioned wetland preserve, according to the documents. The basin at the time also was discharging off-site into a neighboring property. The county informed the regional board that the pump was “shut down immediately.”

About two weeks later, on Feb. 26, 2019, new leachate seeps were observed at Module 4, with more of the dirty liquid flowing into the nearby stormwater pond, according to the documents. The next day, staff again observed a pump transferring water from the contaminated pond to a ditch that drained into the sedimentation basin. The county reported that the problem had been corrected.

Further investigation by the state water board’s Office of Enforcement, however, suggests that the pump transferring dirty water to the sedimentation basin and wetland preserve may not have been “immediately shut down” on Feb. 14, according to documents obtained by the CN&R.

The documents indicate that landfill workers tasked with collecting stormwater samples saw the pump running that morning, transferring water from the pond, which had visible garbage in it, to the sedimentation basin and preserve. After collecting samples, the workers at about 11 a.m. directly notified two senior managers at the landfill about the pumping, saying it should be stopped.

The managers “did not respond,” according to a summary of an interview conducted by state investigators with one of the workers. The worker, at 1:40 p.m. that same day, shut the pump off. That same worker, according the summary, about two weeks later saw the pump again running and transferring contaminated water from the same pond and ultimately to the preserve. The worker again reported the incident to the landfill’s manager and later told state investigators that the county knew of other options besides pumping the dirty water into the preserve, because those options had been discussed between the worker and senior managers, between Feb. 14-26, 2019.

To California Open Lands’ Nielsen, management’s handling of the discharges was negligent, lazy and/or both.

“Everyone who works here knows that you don’t put [contaminated] water in a wetland,” she said. “We trust our government officials to protect public health—to protect natural resources—and they’re failing. They’re failing us.”