Tomorrow’s hearing in the case of BAAQMD (“back-mud”) v. Berkeley is Godzilla v. Bambi, if the attorney for the Air District, Joel Freid, is to be believed. Freid filed a proposed order last Friday specifying what the District will force Berkeley to do if it wins. Basically, it will force Berkeley to tear up and rebuild most of the landfill gas collection system that runs like a spiderweb underground from one corner of the park to the other, and beyond. This will cost the city millions, and it will cost park visitors peace, quiet, and safe passage on trails for as long as 18 months, with unpredictable damage to wildlife.
Reading the proposed order closely, however, reveals that this pretended bureaucratic Godzilla is a stuffed scarecrow. The District’s indictment begins with the admission that due to the age of the landfill, it is exempt from the requirement that each of its gas collection wells must pull in no more than 5 percent oxygen (¶14). The purpose of this exemption is the practical recognition that old landfills don’t generate much gas anymore, and so it’s inevitable that the wells pull in more air than fresh landfills do. The Berkeley landfill last accepted waste in 1983, 41 years ago, and the waste deposits along the southern edge of the park began twenty years earlier. It’s well settled in landfill gas science that gas output declines as the waste ages, and 50 years, more or less, is when the waste goes quiet and gas subsides.
A pragmatic approach to Berkeley’s landfill would recognize that gas generation in the park is basically over. It would recognize that there isn’t enough gas to run the flare station at full blast. It would allow the City to run it part time to burn off the remnants of gas that are still coming, most of them from the area around the Hilton. But don’t look to BAAQMD for a pragmatic approach. In the same sentence that admits that the Berkeley landfill is exempt from the 5% oxygen limit, the District goes on to say, “whether or not this limit applies,” BAAQMD will punish the City for exceeding it.
That’s a bit like saying, even though you’re a senior and entitled to a senior discount, we’re not going to give it to you and we’re going to hold you to the performance standards of a 21-year old, and if you can’t pass those tests, we’re going to fine you $1000 a day. The whole BAAQMD indictment rests on application to the City of a standard that the law clearly says the City is exempt from. It’s a house of cards, and in any impartial tribunal, the District’s case gets thrown out.
The District complains that at about half the landfill gas wells in the park, “the wells were only collecting ambient air, rather than collecting landfill gas.” It believes that this is “due to poor maintenance and disrepair.” Hello? BAAQMD doesn’t recognize the basic fact that gas output declines with landfill age. The obvious reason why the wells aren’t pulling up gas is that there isn’t any. No matter how new and shiny the gadgets are, they can’t pull out gas where there isn’t any.
The deep stupidity of the BAAQMD approach would be laughable if the District didn’t possess authority to compel performance and impose heavy fines. If BAAQMD gets its way, the City will have to replace most of the vertical wells and nearly all of the underground pipes that connect them. It will have to install additional pumps and pipes to collect condensation, and may have to overhaul the flare station. Heavy equipment will be tearing up the park for months.
The final session of the hearing is scheduled for tomorrow, Tuesday Feb. 6, at 9:30 in San Francisco and on Zoom. The District’s lawyer is making his case on the home court before a home umpire. The District Board is judge and jury. For the City to win, the BAAQMD Board will have to rule against its own staff. Did anyone say, “kangaroo court”?