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Landfill/composting fire risk

Landfill/composting fire risk

  • Updated

Some community members have inquired why I continue to be outspoken regarding our local landfill and composting facilities.

One primary reason is ongoing fire risk as this landfill sits in a remote, high-wind, high-fire tier canyon just five forested miles north of St. Helena in proximity to earthquake faults.

Other Upvalley population centers like Angwin, Deer Park and Calistoga are also nearby and our Bell Canyon water source and city water supply is just three forested miles away from this residential and industrial landfill.

Landfills and composting facilities by their nature are prone to fire, much data supports this fact.

Spontaneous fires can and do occur at these types of operations because of volatility of random chemical or material combinations acting as fuel, combined with heat and pressures that exist in such operations.

Processing of garbage and composting of organic materials creates flammable gasses like methane that add to fire risk and are managed through complex piping systems at landfills, vulnerable to disruption in event of earthquake.

In the past five or six years, there have been many documented fires at the landfill, as well as a small chemical explosion and as recently as December 2020 there is video evidence of a "combustion event" at the compost facility on Whitehall Lane.

Viable alternatives exist to these sites that originated in the 1960s, and these alternatives should be presented to our community.

Why continue fire risk at the landfill and Whitehall Lane composting site if we don't have to?

Having the landfill continue to operate and add to its fuel load at this remote high-wind, high-fire tier site puts our community at greater fire risk than if operations were moved to less fire-sensitive areas. It's as simple as that. It's a binary question. Do we want more fire risk or less?

If we want less, we must consider moving these operations.

in 2017, The Tubbs Fire, with winds over 50 miles per hour, travelled at three miles an hour and in one night raced 15 miles from north of Calistoga to Santa Rosa, causing massive devastation to Sonoma County communities.

We were fortunate in St. Helena and Upvalley that night that wind patterns north of Mount St. Helena took the fire in a different direction.

And while our good fortune was somebody else's tragedy, what do wind pattern maps show if a fire originates in a remote, high wind canyon in the upper Napa Valley, just five miles north of St. Helena, and gets out of control?

One spark, one flame, one blowing ember or piece of burning material at the wrong time, at the wrong place and with high wind is all it takes. That could be our tragedy and devastating to all.

Available mapping shows the area where this landfill is situated - between St. Helena and Calistoga in a high-wind, high-fire risk Tier 2 area bordering on highest fire risk Tier 3 area in the hills of the upper Napa Valley. The landfill did not act as a firebreak in the Glass Fire, as the owners said it would, but rather the fire moved through it.

Wind increases danger when fire occurs and we know now that operational landfills are more prone to fire than those no longer operational, as ongoing activity and addition of waste increases the potentially volatile fuel load, creating a higher risk for fire/combustion.

Again, why continue the fire risk at the landfill and composting sites if we don't have to? Particularly since alternatives exist and could be explored through company willingness or a competitive bidding process that has not occurred here for the last six decades.

As politically challenging as this issue is, and while certain efforts have been made by the company to mitigate fire risks and other environmental issues, I believe due to site locations alone that logic tells us it's time to question continuing use of these locations chosen in the 1960s, well before current understanding of climate, environmental and wildfire realities.

It has been suggested financial costs of relocating these operations to more fire safe areas could be high, or may increase vehicle miles as related to climate.

These concerns should be explored transparently and considering much waste is already being trucked in and out of these industrial facilities. Methods of offsetting these transportation concerns exist. Considering all we have to protect here from fire - our families, our lives, our home investments, our businesses, our communities - logic compels me to say that we can’t afford not to probe more deeply into this matter as soon as possible to minimize fire risk and find safest possible long term refuse management solutions to ensure protection for our community from potentials of devastating wildfire and other risks.

(Note: I am submitting this letter as an individually elected public official in the position of mayor of St. Helena, but the opinions expressed herein are mine individually and do not represent the positions of the St. Helena City Council or the City of St. Helena.)

Geoff Ellsworth, Mayor

St. Helena

Editor's note: This item has been modified to include the author's disclaimer that the opinions he expresses are his own.

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