Clover Flat Landfill after the Glass Fire damaged the facility. (Photo courtesy of Christy Pestoni)

As Napa County’s only landfill is poised to take in tons of debris from this year’s massive LNU Lightning Complex fires, it has also found itself in the middle of a debate about whether it should continue to stay open at all.

At the center of the kerfuffle is St. Helena Mayor Geoff Ellsworth, who for months has been taking aim at the operation and oversight of Clover Flat Landfill, which has a history of environmental and fire violations dating back several years.

Ellsworth, who is in the midst of a re-election campaign, has engaged in a steady back-and-forth with Clover Flat management and some of his fellow elected officials over whether the facility represents an unacceptable threat to the environment and to the health and safety of local residents.

He says he is pushing for a region-wide conversation about the possibility of somehow moving the landfill or closing it and using a different facility given the fire-prone nature of the current location and its location atop the Napa River watershed.

“In the Napa Valley our brand and our product is based in water and the land, so for this type of thing to show up here is unacceptable,” Ellsworth said of the potential impacts the landfill could have on the wine industry.

“And what assurances do I have as a mayor that people are going to be OK?” he said.

Ellsworth says his concerns are amplified by the fact that the landfill was severely damaged by the recent Glass Fire and is now permitted to take in debris from homes and businesses destroyed in the devastating LNU Lightning Complex fires.

“This is additionally concerning since it was the increased volume of fire debris from the Tubbs Fire that spurred many of the problems in 2018 and 2019 that led to the shutdown of this landfill in the spring of 2019,” Ellsworth said.

While Ellsworth’s views have attracted significant support — notably from the environmental community — the landfill’s management and some government officials accuse Ellsworth of political grandstanding and say the disposal area has successfully addressed weaknesses in its operation.

An inspector with the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board, one of the agencies that oversees landfills, did in fact issue emergency clean-up and abatement orders after finding a toxic mixture of water and landfill contaminants called leachate flowing into a nearby creek that indirectly feeds the Napa River.

A worker collects litter during a February 2019 inspection of Clover Flat Landfill. (Photo courtesy of CalRecycle)

At least part of Clover Flat’s leachate violations originated in an area of the landfill that contained fire debris.

“They did not place some of that debris correctly,” said Alyx Karpowicz, the Water Board inspector who issued the orders. “But the majority of the leachate things that became a problem were on the older, closed areas (of the landfill) that hadn’t been filled in decades.”

The leachate violations were severe enough for county officials to temporarily close the landfill and issue a health advisory warning people to keep clear of the creeks and river.

Bryce Howard, the landfill’s general manager, said the collection and storage system was inadequate to cope with the volume of leachate generated by the landfill at the time, and it simply began to leak and overflow.

“The system was overtaxed for a period of time and it took some time, but we mitigated that,” Howard said.

The landfill was also required to complete mitigation work after construction of an access road inside the facility resulted in a sediment discharge into the same nearby creek.

“We recognize we are responsible for the sediment release so we’ve taken steps to correct that,” Howard said.

Also, after buying three portable tanks in order to add water capacity for fire control, the landfill operators discovered they were coated with “naturally occurring shale oils” that contained radioactive materials.

Some landfill employees were exposed, and at least one required hospitalization after exhibiting symptoms of radiation poisoning, Howard said.

“That employee has fully recovered and is back at work,” he said, adding that the radioactive materials have been cleaned up and removed from the facility.

Additionally, in 2018 the landfill was the site of a series of fires, at least two or three of which required a response by Cal Fire crews.

In the wake of these incidents, the county’s Environmental Health Division and fire marshal “issued permit violations and asked us to do a series of corrective actions, which have all been completed now,” Howard said.

Some of the new measures included covering the landfill and side slopes with dirt every day, setting a 24-hour fire watch during fire season, installing a new high-capacity water tank and fire hydrants to be used exclusively for fire suppression and adding a “fire watch camera” operated by a third party as part of a pilot program, Howard said.

Since implementing these changes, no fires have started within the landfill.

Also, in the aftermath of all of those incidents, the landfill changed management teams and has been working closely with the Water Board and Napa County, Karpowicz said.

“They’re always very open and transparent,” Karpowicz said. “They’re very accommodating, and they want to make sure I’m 100 percent kept in the loop because they are also very aware of their public image.”

Still, a vocal group of critics of the landfill, which was built in the 1960s, continue to express skepticism.

In a letter to the editor of the Napa Valley Register, Chris Malan, a well-known local environmentalist, advocated for finding another location for the landfill or handing its management over to another entity.

Jerry Bernhaut, of the water quality monitoring group California River Watch, said in an interview that his organization is concerned the landfill is exceeding limits for toxic metals in stormwater runoff.

“They are way over water quality limits on toxic metals, which is not unusual for landfills. Landfills are problematic,” Bernhaut said. “There’s every reason to believe there are ongoing violations.”

According to 2019-2020 sampling data from the Water Board, the landfill exceeded limits to various degrees for aluminum, iron, zinc, nitrite and phosphorus, among other materials.

These exceedances aren’t permit violations, but they do require the facility to conduct “additional analyses to address potential pollutant sources,” Karpowicz said in an email.

“And yes, these are stormwater samples that are mostly all going toward/into the creek. How far they travel is undetermined however,” she said.

Despite this, Karpowicz believes the landfill is well prepared to receive fire debris this year.

“They did a good job of placement of that waste last year and I anticipate they’ll do the same this year,” she said.

Howard said Clover Flat ownership spent $6.4 million on improvements in 2019, repaired damage from the Glass Fire and is ready to take on the extra waste generated by other recent fires, which could double, triple or quadruple the amount of materials the landfill normally handles in a given period of time.

“We have the equipment and the manpower and the space,” Howard said. “Each year we always plan to have additional capacity just in case.

“It’s the new normal for every landfill in this area of California,” Howard added. “We have harvest season and now we have fire season.”

Howard points out that the landfill has an agreement to handle the region’s waste until 2047 and has permits based on environmental impact studies approved by the Napa County Board of Supervisors.

“And we do have at least three or four regulatory agencies that inspect us on a regular basis, and it’s their charge to make sure we’re in compliance and compliant,” he said. “I think that as long as we are in compliance, then we’re doing our job for the community and our environment.”

Apart from concerns about the landfill itself, Ellsworth is also critical of its oversight, part of which is the responsibility of the Upper Valley Waste Management Agency, a joint powers authority governed by a board made up of representatives from St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville and Napa County.

“I have concerns about conflicts of interest and transparency in our oversight and regulatory process,” Ellsworth, himself an alternate member of the UVWMA board, said at a recent board meeting.

Board chairwoman Margery Mohler, a member of the Yountville Town Council, and St. Helena City Councilmember Mary Koberstein, who is running against Ellsworth in the mayoral race and who also sits on the board, didn’t respond to requests for comment.

“The oversight that the JPA had in previous years certainly could have been better,” said board member Chris Canning, mayor of Calistoga. “We went through a series of small fires, then the JPA became pretty heavy handed.”

“There is a public record of me being the most vocal in getting (the landfill) in line,” said Canning, who added that the board follows all California open meeting laws and board members report its activities back to their own local governments.

He also said he’s satisfied with the progress the landfill operators have made on past safety and environmental problems.

“This is an election year talking point (for Ellsworth),” Canning said. “There’s no there there.”

Landfill COO Christy Pestoni, whose family owns Clover Flat, also says Ellsworth’s motivations are primarily political.

“Mayor Ellsworth, who I have known since childhood, is using this issue for his political campaign,” Pestoni said in an email. “It’s unfortunate that he has decided to take this route.”