Ryan Sabalow and Dale Kasler, Sacramento Bee
For years, contractors and trash haulers in California have been accepting discarded fence posts, backyard deck planks and other chemically treated wood debris without giving it much thought.
That all came to an abrupt end earlier this year, courtesy of an unexpected veto by Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Last fall, Newsom vetoed Senate Bill 68, which would have allowed landfills to continue accepting hundreds of thousands of tons of “treated wood waste” — the remnants of railroad ties, decking materials, agricultural stakes and other wooden material that had been pre-treated with industrial chemicals to withstand the elements.
The veto, which took effect Jan. 1, stunned lawmakers — the bill had unanimously passed both houses of the Legislature — and it threw the state’s waste management industry into disarray.
Contractors, haulers and the lumber industry initially had no idea what to do with the material that needs to get tossed after nearly every backyard remodel, agricultural clean up, highway project and housing teardown.
“They banned it from the landfill. They banned it from being hauled. They took what was deemed safe on your deck and made it illegal to handle it and dispose of it, with no backup plan,” said Brock Hill, owner of Premier Recycle, a hauling and recycling company based in San Jose.
The logjam has been eased somewhat. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control developed an emergency “variance” allowing landfills to resume taking the treated wood debris. As of this week, at least 47 landfills across the state have received variance waivers, and many of those have started accepting the wood again in the past few weeks.
Trash haulers say the variance program has essentially staved off a crisis, at least for the time being. Since January, they faced astronomical prices to dispose of treated wood at the few landfills left that would actually accept the material.
Sacramento County, for example, posted a notice on its website telling contractors and backyard dumpers to simply leave the wood onsite since the county couldn’t accept loads at its transfer stations and its Kiefer Boulevard landfill in Sloughhouse.
“I have had to tell people, ‘I can’t haul it, and I don’t know who to refer you to,’ ” said Jim Long, who owns Long’s Trash Hauling in Sacramento. “Some of them got pretty upset at me, but it was something completely out of my control.”
But the waivers represent just a band-aid, and legislators are trying to fashion a permanent fix. Assemblyman Bill Quirk, D-Hayward, has introduced Assembly Bill 332, which would essentially overturn Newsom’s veto and return the system to the way it was.
Quirk’s rationale is based on a fear that banning the wood waste would simply prompt Californians to dump the debris illegally, worsening the environmental hazards.
“I am very concerned that without a place to safely take treated wood waste it will be illegally disposed of on roadsides throughout the state,” Quirk said in a statement his office released to The Sacramento Bee. He said his bill will “provide certainty to those that generate and manage treated wood waste.”
Hill said the threat of illegal dumping isn’t an idle concern. “I’ve seen it,” the San Jose hauler said.
In Sacramento County, officials were surprised they didn’t see an uptick in people dumping the stuff on the side of the road, said Laurie Slothower, a county spokeswoman.
AB 332 has already been passed unanimously by the Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials, which Quirk chairs. He said the state’s willingness to create a one-year variance for dumping the debris is a sign that Newsom will be “receptive” to his bill.
Asked about the fallout from his veto, Newsom’s press office referred a reporter to his written veto message.
As for Quirk’s bill, “as is typically the case with pending legislation, the governor will evaluate the bill on its own merits if and when it reaches his desk,” the press office said in an emailed statement.
Under California law, treated wood is technically considered hazardous waste akin to a car battery or a barrel of industrial chemicals. The toxic chemicals used to treat the wood, like creosote, can leach into the ecosystem and are slow to break down.
The chemicals are considered so hazardous under California’s regulations that only one collection facility in the entire state — a privately owned site in Kern County — actually meets the strict state regulatory standards to accept the material.
Knowing that treated wood is so widely used — it’s for sale in hardware stores — and vast amounts of it needs to be disposed of each year, state officials and elected leaders for nearly two decades have agreed it should still be allowed to be discarded in most of the state’s landfills so long as they have clay and plastic liners on the ground to prevent toxins from seeping into the ecosystem.
This system was due to “sunset” at the end of 2020. SB 68, which would have done away with the sunset limits and extended the program in perpetuity, was the rare bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. It passed the Senate 39-0 and the Assembly 75-0.
And then the governor vetoed it, citing costs to the the Department of Toxic Substances Control and harms to the environment.
“While the generation of this waste may have justified the allowance for alternative management standards, this waste is hazardous and poses a risk to both human health and the environment and necessitates periodic review of its statutory authorization,” Newsom wrote in his veto message.
The state’s trash disposal and recycling industry was caught off guard.
“When the governor vetoed it, it was a shock,” said Eric Oddo, environmental engineering program manager for the Western Placer Waste Management Authority, which manages Placer’s County’s landfill. “We couldn’t quite understand what the motivation was for that. ”
Mark Barudoni, owner of Barudoni Construction in Sacramento, said contractors were forced to figure out a way to get rid of old deck materials and other treated wood.
“It doesn’t go away, just because they won’t accept it in the landfill,” Barudoni said. “The safest place for it is in the landfill.”
His company was able to unload its debris “on a guy that wanted it,” he said. “What he did with it, I don’t know.”
Until the state unveiled the variance program, landfills either had to stop accepting the wood at all — or raise dumping prices to cover their costs of transporting the debris to the Kern County location.
“We realized that we needed to figure out a plan to move forward because the material wasn’t going away,” Oddo said.
For the first three months of 2021, customers hauling loads of wooden railroad ties, old decks and fence posts to Placer’s landfill, located between Roseville and Lincoln, got a serious case of sticker shock.
The price for disposing treated wood waste at the Placer landfill had roughly quadrupled, to $741 a ton. For the typical pickup load, the price jumped from under $100 to nearly $400.
The price spike didn’t last long. The Placer landfill got a variance from the state to resume handling the wood debris, enabling it to return to its earlier prices. Haulers who’d been charged the higher price got refunds, Oddo said.
“We never had to ship any treated wood waste off to Southern California,” Oddo said. “We didn’t incur those extra costs … It’s not right to hold on to that money. We wanted to make it right.”
The backlogs and confusion that followed the governor’s veto highlighted how local landfills are the only practical solution to dispose of the material in California, said Tim Israel, superintendent of technical services for Sacramento County’s Department of Waste Management & Recycling.
He urged Californians to call their lawmakers to urge them to prevent the scenario from repeating itself again when the variance waivers expire in a year.
“These are the sorts of environmental regulations that cost us a lot of money, all of us, you know?” Israel said. “Lawmakers don’t realize the consequences of some of these decisions sometimes.”