Petaluma Mushroom Farm: A bad egg for Petaluma
January 22, 2003
By ANDREW PACKARD
The latest chapter in the saga of the Petaluma Mushroom Farm has begun to unfold. It is a long story of one member of the community's brazen disregard for county, state and federal laws, and how it has ignored the rights of its neighbors to enjoyment of their land in peace. In this age of corporate scandal facilitated by spineless governmental regulators, the mushroom farm's many broken promises and total disregard for the community are, unfortunately, not remarkable. What is remarkable, however, is the shameless manner in which our feckless elected officials and regulatory agencies have tolerated this charade for 20 years.
In the 1970s, when the Petaluma Mushroom Farm opened on Thompson Lane, it was a "Mom and Pop" enterprise involving only a few employees, and operating at a fraction of its current production level. Consequently, obtaining a land use permit was not difficult. Today, however, the farm is greatly expanded, with more than 80 employees, processing approximately 500 tons of compost per week, using 2,500 pounds of toxic pesticides (including diazinon) annually, and generating up to 400,000 gallons of wastewater each month. Unfortunately, the farm was never designed to handle this much wastewater, which has resulting in intentional, illicit discharges into Marin Creek. The result: a local creek clotted with animal waste, the discharge of carcinogenic pesticides into the Petaluma River, and a disgusting stench. As the surrounding community discovered, this use of the land is wholly incompatible with the rural residential character of the neighborhood.
The responsible course would have been to incur the expense of actually addressing its wastewater and other environmental problems, as its law-abiding competitors have done. Instead, the farm stuck its head in the sand, ignored the complaints of the community, and greedily elected to pocket such compliance costs and call them profits. By "externalizing" these costs, the farm asked you and me to pick up their bill for years to come, in the form of a degraded watershed and foul air. Anyone who wishes to enjoy Marin Creek, the Petaluma River, the San Francisco Bay or any of the ecosystems they support, and anyone who simply wants to pass through the northwest part of town without being bowled over by the farm's noxious stench, is paying the price for the farm's illegal behavior.
With assistance from local environmental watchdog WaterKeepers Northern California, the district attorney sued the farm in 1999. The DA cut the farm a sweetheart deal under which the farm would relocate the composting to another site by September 2000, in lieu of the maximum fines. The farm failed to meet the deadline and was granted a one-year extension. When it again failed to meet the court's deadline, the previously waived fines were imposed, and the DA dropped the case. The total penalties imposed, for years of violating federal law, were $25,000.
Meanwhile, the Regional Water Quality Control Board found that the farm's unlined pond "poses a significant threat to groundwater," and ordered installation of monitoring wells adjacent to the pond, and testing of the soil and water in and around Marin Creek to assess possible environmental damage from pesticides and animal waste. Astonishingly, none of these orders have been carried out, and Water Quality will do nothing about it. Between the DA's office, the Board of Zoning Adjustments, and the Board of Supervisors, the farm has received no less than three extensions of the deadline to relocate its composting. The latest deadline was Dec. 31, 2002 and yet the compost piles are still sitting on Thompson Lane. The county has finally issued the farm a notice of violation of its land use permit. If the composting operation is not removed within 30 days, the order states that the farm may be subject to substantial criminal and civil penalties, and abatement. It is time for the Regional Water Quality Control Board to enforce its own cleanup and abatement order against the farm. Only when the required testing has been completed, will the true extent of the environmental damage done by the farm be known.
(Andrew Packard is a public interest environmental lawyer and currently represents WaterKeepers Northern California in its Clean Water Act enforcement program. He is a Petaluma resident.)