Thursday, September 13, 2007

La Paz Loses Yakima Case

Little La Paz County, AZ, has failed at great cost in putting biosolids drier Yakima Company out of business. Jim Willett, owner, told me years ago about the bizarre goings on that precipitated his 2004 claim for damages of $20M, the amount he would lose over a 25 year period as a result of the County terminating its contract. The contract was for providing space for the drying operation, and to secure additional space for future expansion in exchange for a $/ton fee. The contract encouraged volume and, in hopes of generating County revenues as quickly as possible, the County allowed Jim to start operations on condition of working up a closure plan and bonding for the closure costs. Then something went sour, and the county stalled beyond reason their acceptance of first the plan and then the bonding. When they did accept, they didn't inform Jim.

It was a pretty simple business model: truck the solids in from LA, lay it out thin and dry it in the wind and sun, windrow it to finesse stabilization, pick it up and truck the now Class A fertilizer-esque material a few miles back to California to needy farmers. With the right combo of clients, farmers, and truckers, it was clean, simple, satisfying, and profitable in what can be a complex, and low margin business.

Last week a La Paz County jury awarded Jim $9.2M plus legal expenses. Jim regrets the process and takes no joy in the results. It is not the life, and not the legacy, that he wanted.

The local rag has posted several articles on the trial (1, 2, 3). The newspaper, which gamely supports comments on articles, was unprepared for the outpouring of vigorous support for the jurors courageous decision, and the level of outrage directed towards the County Board of Supervisors for their mismanagement of political power. The paper clearly slants its writing in support of the BoS, adding to the intensity of the backlash. The editor, John Gutekunst, selectively deletes comments but even at that the longest set of comments now prints out to 33 pages even when ported to Word in 10font.

According to comments, the County's $1.5 million in legal fees are not covered by insurance, and the County determined this early on in the process. Comments characterize the legal effort as a personal vendetta against Jim by Supervisor Gene Fisher. This vendetta included asking the sheriff to arrest Jim's clients at the drier site for trespassing on County property, and coaching employees against their better judgment to the point that one County employee quit their job. Word gets out fast on that type of work place abuse. Tossing aside the potential of $1-200K/yr in much needed tax free revenue for personal reasons has added to local dissatisfaction.

Despite a lack of public support, or financial capacity, it is clear that the County will appeal. A reinvigorated recall effort is mounting to pull the plug on this monster.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Redox Cascade

This chart (click for a readable version) shows shows the cascading preference of electron acceptors needed to sustain microbial respiration. When a soil system runs out of oxygen, it relies on nitrate (denitrification) to accept the electrons freed by respiration, and so forth down the cascade. Not shown at the bottom of the cascade is the production of hydrogen from water, but then that is an extreme seldom achieved in nature. The units for Eh are millivolts, the standard measure of redox potential.

An equivalent measure of redox potential is pE. Just as pH is the negative log of the hydrion activity, pE is the negative log of electron activity (source). Soil pE and soil pH are equally important to predicting charge state of metals and nutrients. However, because measuring pH is relatively easier by far, and because knowing pH tells us volumes about expected pE, soil pE is a less discussed subject. It is important to bioremediation, industrial chemistry, and wetland science. Not a household term.

These two are more than a mirror pair, although mirroring is their most notable characteristic. When pH changes, pE must also change in response. The reverse is true also. In soil, that response departs from simple mirroring. So much so that it can seem to be two separate dances.

Soil pH and pE have different causes of change and different effective buffering agents. The term 'buffering' is replaced in a pE context - it is called poise. A stabilized soil pE system is referred to as a well poised system, differences in soil buffering versus soil poise account for the departure from 1:1 mirroring.

Now for the exciting stuff. To many of us, what makes soil different than geologic material is that it is in an excited state, excited mostly by solar energy as facilitated by living processes. Unlike soil pH, soil pE is directly influenced by these energy fluxes.

The most influential cause of changes in soil pE is metabolic respiration aka oxidation. Oxidation doesn't necessarily involve oxygen. Oxidation does necessarily involve shedding an electron. Thus, respiring living systems lower the pE of a soil system, and with pE in the dance lead, pH must follow.
Wetlands are low pE systems, wetlands with hydrogen sulphide odors are very low pE systems. Common dryland agricultural crops, like wheat, cannot abide low pE systems. Rice is adapted to low pE conditions.

A well recognized soil buffering agent is lime, which buffers a soil to about pH 8.2. The major agent of soil poise is iron. By all rights, the chart should show iron as having the longest duration horizontal line: there is a vast amount of iron in soil compared to nitrate and manganese. However soil manganese, although far less abundant than iron, plays a more important, more dynamic role in most soil systems.

One soil scientist, Richmond Bartlett, was so taken with the importance of manganese in this regard that he opened his chapter on manganese in a 1995 soil chemistry text (1995, Environmental Soil Chemistry, edited by Don Sparks) with the phrase “We all should fall upon our knees and sing out praise for manganese”
Richmond Bartlett goes on to describe the role of manganese in terms that nearly describe a catalyst. Mn is not consumed, and the capacity for metabolic respiration increases in its presence.

This is sheer speculation on my part: from my view through the knothole, the nearly catalytic nature of traces of Mn is a finessing touch that makes bio-char the wonderful soil reef it is. It is a fine point, and one hardly worth mentioning considering the much more important issues that need working out in our pursuit of Wim Sombroek's vision for terra preta nova.

Expanded from information originally posted on the terra preta forum.

Sunnyside Wetland

One of my projects made the front page of the Yakima newspaper. Since the paper tends to paywall these things in short order, I thought the blog would make a handy archive.

The picture here is from the project site. The retaining wall in the picture was placed by the county in order to keep the road apron from impacting what was presumed from USFWS-NWI reconnaisance mapping to be a jurisdiction wetland. That mapping plus the observed standing water and the wetland vegetation seemed to the county to be proof positive that clearing the land was a violation of the county critical areas code. It wasn't.

Published on Monday, September 10, 2007

County learns lessons from fight with farmer

SUNNYSIDE -- Don Young didn't think his neighbor's irrigation water leaking into his property should qualify it as wetland, and after a yearlong fight, Yakima County agreed with him.

The saga, which Young documented in a meticulous inch-thick file he says makes him feel like an attorney, cost him about $6,000 by his count and kept him from using the land until last month. It also forced county leaders to rethink the way they apply the county's Critical Areas Ordinance. The ordinance, which has been under review for five years and is nearly finished, still will be enforced as mandated by state law, county Public Services Director Vern Redifer said.

"But where you can construe the law in the favor of property owners, we'll construe it that way," he said.

That's good news to Young, a self-described "stubborn old farmer" who believes he might not have prevailed in his dispute if he hadn't had the money for a consultant to make his case.

"This is a story that needs to be told, not for my benefit but for the taxpayers and the public," the 73-year-old retired rancher said.

The whole thing began when a county road crew spotted Young pulling up vegetation on the edge of his property. The county issued a cease-and-desist order in May 2006, about seven months after Young bought the 4-acre property south of Sunnyside. To his thinking, the Russian olive trees and other vegetation he removed were just trash like the piles of tires and garbage that were also on the property.

Thinking he was actually improving the land, Young took umbrage to the county's order, which included the possibility of $1,000-a-day fines.

"Nobody ever said anything about it being a wetland," he said.

He also didn't like the way county staff treated him when he disputed the matter. It was clear enough to Young that the land in question wasn't a wetland because the only source of water was the neighbor's irrigation runoff, or what his hired consultant labeled "water trespass." But he couldn't get the county to see it that way.

"The heading of their letter is 'public services,'" Young said. "I told them they need to change that, because there is no way in this world that they are serving the public."

The county's opinion on the matter didn't change until Young received a report he'd commissioned on the matter by wetlands delineation expert Phil Small of Spokane. Small's report, written after a visit to the property during which he drilled holes to measure groundwater levels, found there was no source of water other than the irrigation runoff. The county considered it a persuasive argument and in a July 31 letter lifted the cease-and-
desist order.

"What I want to know," Young said, "is why didn't the county have to hire him to prove it was a wetland instead of me having to hire him to prove it's not."

In the county staff's defense, the property did have signs of being a wetland, such as reeds, bulrushes and the Russian olive trees, Redifer said. The staff was simply following its procedures as laid out in its own policy and didn't err in that regard, he said.

County officials tried to work with Young along the way, planning manager Steve Erickson said. But the county's suggestion that Young "wait and see" if his property was a wetland based on whether groundwater returned even without irrigation runoff didn't fit into Young's schedule, Erickson said. That meant Young had to hire his consultant to force the issue, but that was up to him, Erickson said.

Where things might have been done differently, and will be in the future, is in the way county staff deals with people in such disputes, Redifer said.

Comparing it to baseball, in which "ties go to the runner," he said if there are questions about whether to act on a possible wetland scenario like Young's, the landowner will be "the runner." That is in line with the Yakima County Commissioners philosophy of a more user-friendly Critical Areas Ordinance application, which they have espoused during deliberations on the ordinance.

Staff also might call people in the future or knock on their doors, rather than sending formal letters specifying possible fines.

"I think (the letter) made him feel like a big lawbreaker, and that certainly wasn't the intent," Redifer said.

"That's another lesson learned -- how we go about engaging someone with a potential violation," Erickson added.

While he would be happy to see such changes, Young still isn't sure the county has done right by him. He's contemplating filing a claim to recoup the money he spent fighting the initial ruling. In the meantime, though, he's working the land for the first time in about a year.

He's put manure down and hopes to have the whole thing seeded for pasture by the end of September.

"I lost the production of that land for a year already," he said. "Over a year."

* Pat Muir can be reached at 577-7693 or