With the future of the highly touted Resource Recovery Project at the Tajiguas Landfill unclear, some members of the Santa Barbara City Council are doubting the long-term viability of the project.
“This project had a lot of promise,” said Councilman Jason Dominguez at Tuesday’s council meeting. “Every year we delay is two less years we can use that landfill. We really need to look at alternatives.”
Santa Barbara County in 2016 agreed to spend $110.8 million to build a materials recovery facility that would sort trash into three streams: recyclables, organics and residuals.
The recyclables would be sold, and the organics would be processed at an on-site anaerobic digestion facility that would convert them to compostable material and biogas. The residuals would go into the landfill.
The county would finance the project through the issuance of bonds, but is relying on the city of Santa Barbara and other local jurisdictions to deliver steady waste — and revenues — to pay off the bond debt to build the project.
However, the project has been delayed by an error and litigation.
A portion of the original design turned out to located within the Coastal Zone boundary, which is against state law. The project had to be redesigned outside of the coastal zone, forcing the terms of the contract with the construction company MSB to be renegotiated.
Despite the error, the plan was to issue the bonds this spring, and then move forward with construction.
But that wasn’t good enough for some environmental activists.
The Gaviota Coast Conservancy filed a lawsuit challenging the county’s approval of the project, and demanding a supplemental environmental impact report.
They said the project is “flawed” because it won’t meet the county’s financial or environmental targets.
China’s decision in 2017 to raise the standard and quality of recycled materials that it would accept “undermine’s the project’s financial viability,” they alleged.
Phil McKenna, chairman of the land-use committee for the conservancy, attempted to frame the issue in simple terms for the City Council.
“Your costs are going up and your revenues are going down, and that is compounded by the fact that you are facing significant uncertainty,” McKenna said. “The trade war that the current administration has entered into with the Chinese has directly impacted the city of Santa Barbara.”
McKenna said China’s $25 tariff on scrap aluminum coming from the U.S. has changed the entire conversation around the project.
“That completely eliminates that market for us,” McKenna said.
Santa Barbara Finance Director Bob Samario said he expects the lawsuit to be resolved in late summer or early Fall.
“This time delay is so unfortunate,” said Councilwoman Kristen Sneddon. “I feel like we have a responsibility at this stage of delay to at least pursue other options.”
In the meantime, the changes in financing for the project forced the tipping fees to rise from $118 per ton to $142 per ton — charges that will be passed on to ratepayers — and no one knows what the final tipping fee will be by the time the project eventually gets approved.
The total cost of the project is expected to reach about $540 million over the next 20 years.
Santa Barbara Mayor Cathy Murillo said the county and the city should stay the course.
“We have made quite the investment in this project,” Murillo said.
Councilman Dominguez disagreed, saying the city should be flexible.
“We want to plan ahead,” Dominguez said. “We don’t want to wait to see what happens. We should seize the day and look at the alternatives.”
— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.