Costs will outlast Clovis landfill cleanup project

March 24, 2009 

Clovis’ seemingly never-ending landfill repair project may finally be approaching the end — but the rate increases to pay for it may not.

After a decade of work, the effort to contain methane and other contaminants is expected to be completed by the end of summer. An expansion should be finished next year.

But the City Council is being asked to continue 4% trash-rate increases for several more years to pay the escalating costs of the project.

“In 1998, we started what was supposed to be a three-and-a-half year, $3.8 million project,” said Luke Serpa, the city’s assistant public utilities director, who has been leading the project for four years. “We are now in our 10th year and $9 million into it.”

During that time, equipment has dug trash from an unlined part of the landfill nearly 80 feet below the surface across 40 acres. The trash was moved to a lined area because methane gas from rotting trash was leaking into ground water. The landfill first opened in 1957.

With gas monitoring equipment and water monitoring wells, Robert Woolley, the city’s financial director, estimates the project’s eventual cost will be about $12 million.

The project had several goals: stop ground water contamination by scooping out old trash and placing it in a lined landfill; add space for a landfill expansion; and avoid a drawn-out permit process that would be required if a new landfill was built elsewhere.

The project allows the city to keep the Auberry Road landfill, 13 miles north of Clovis, in use until 2047. Without the project, the city still would have been responsible for environmental clean-up and long-term monitoring of the site, officials said.

The project has faced a string of problems.

Clovis originally paid a contractor $3.85 million to move trash to prevent ground water contamination and reduce underground methane pollution. But the contractor went bankrupt before finishing the work.

The city took over and spent $2 million before hiring a new contractor, who was paid $2.8 million to finish the job.

In addition, the city discovered more buried trash than it expected. The extra 100,000 cubic yards will be cleared by end of summer, Serpa said. The project has taken so long that state requirements have changed.

The landfill’s methane levels now meet state guidelines, but the city must buy nine new gas monitoring wells to meet new state standards. The equipment will cost $100,000, Serpa said.

The city also has to meet new state standards for a new landfill liner. A liner for the new, 12.7-acre portion of the landfill is estimated to cost $2.5 million, but the new standards may drive that cost even higher.

The city could trim liner costs reducing the size of the next phase of landfill expansion, Serpa said.

But Council Member Nathan Magsig favors lining the entire landfill addition now to avoid higher costs in the future, even if that requires continued annual rate increases. Mayor Harry Armstrong agreed: “The longer you put it off, the greater the chance that you are going to pay more.”

To cover the project’s costs, the city’s solid waste fund has borrowed money from other city funds. Also, new homes being built in Clovis are being charged a $291 fee to pay for landfill expansion.

Serpa said the city’s solid waste fund can repay its loans in about three years. Until then, annual 4% trash-rate increases will continue.

Once the loans are repaid, however, those rate increases should become less frequent, he said.

The reporter can be reached at mbenjamin@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6166.

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