A City Owned Landfill—Subsidized by Countywide Property Tax—is Sinking into the Bay

South San Francisco, CA    January 20, 2016    by Sabrina Brennan, SMC Harbor Commissioner 

Sea level rise and this year’s “Godzilla” El Niño weather pattern will come together in a “perfect storm” this week as King Tides flood the Bay Area for a third month in a row. On Thursday at 9:30am and Friday at 10:30am South San Francisco’s city owned marina at Oyster Point will experience flooding as a consequence of landfill subsidence.

Late last year the San Francisco Bay Regional Water Quality Control Board sent an enforcement letter to the City of South San Francisco regarding recurrent flooding overtopping an old clay cap that covers the Oyster Point landfill. Environmental reports indicate that the cap should be replaced; as floodwater seeps through the clay, contaminants could be migrating into the Bay through poorly constructed mud berms. The letter states that South City has until the end of January to provide a short-term flood protection plan and a long-term plan is due at the end of May.


VIDEO NBC Bay Area KNTV Channel 11 evening news Dec. 23, 2015 6:00pm and 11:00pm CLICK HERE

In a Daily Journal article published earlier this month South City Manager Mike Futrell said Oyster Point has proven to be valuable and is an admirable example of how to turn an old landfill into an asset that earns the San Mateo County Harbor District $1.5 million a year. The article neglects to mention that operating costs at Oyster Point are $3.5 million annually. A $2 million annual shortfall is subsidized by countywide property tax.

Let’s take a look at why a city owned landfill is subsidized by countywide property tax.

In 1957 the City of South San Francisco discontinued open air burning of trash and established a solid waste disposal site on Bay wetlands. Consistent with landfill practices at that time, an impermeable liner was never installed at the site. Instead, waste materials were placed directly onto Bay Mud. A basic principle of landfill design is to keep water out and to prevent dumped material and contaminants from seeping into the Bay or groundwater. The consequences of placing household and industrial waste onto the Bay Mud without a liner are most likely still serious today. Rising sea levels will increase the hazards from the dump.

In 1962, while poorly compacted municipal and industrial waste, prone to subsidence, was being dumped on Bay wetlands, “The Industrial City” simultaneously constructed a small craft harbor along the north shore of the Oyster Point Landfill.

Around 1976, the closure of the landfill prompted South City officials to make a sweetheart deal with the Harbor District to obtain a subsidy from county taxpayers for their marina. In 1977, South City and the Harbor District entered into a Joint Powers Agreement (JPA) that terminates in 2026. The JPA resulted in countywide property tax funding South City marina operations and expansion projects.

Subsidizing operations at Oyster Point has resulted in deferred maintenance at Pillar Point Harbor.

Pillar Point Harbor (PPH) is one of the few commercial fishing ports in California and it’s owned and operated by the Harbor District. It’s located in an unincorporated area of the county; the District’s Harbor Patrol provides search and rescue emergency response, tenant occupancy rates are consistently high, and it’s the only harbor of refuge from Santa Cruz to San Francisco. The beautiful Half Moon Bay location provides ocean-dependent recreation and a local source for sustainable seafood. A strong case can be made for funding PPH emergency response, repairs and improvements with tax dollars. Maintaining a decades-old commercial fishing harbor in need of TLC is not unlike owning a boat—things are always breaking and maintenance is required.

Is South City better equipped to staff and operate their marina; why wait 10 years for the JPA to expire?

Today, the City of South San Francisco owns Oyster Point Marina/Landfill, the Water Emergency Transportation Authority (WETA) owns and operates the ferry terminal and the Harbor District manages the marina operations.

Since the closure of the landfill, South City has grown rapidly. However, new development at Oyster Point has been stymied because it would require a costly cleanup effort that includes excavation of landfill materials to meet Title 27 environmental regulations.

Since it opened in 2012 the ferry terminal has been challenged by poor public transit connectivity. The Genentech bus bottoms out because landfill subsidence has made the roads at Oyster Point a bit like a roller coaster ride. Have you driven out there? Go slow! To address these problems South City should work with residents and stakeholders to establish a clear vision focused on public transportation and recreation.

A well-designed waterfront free of industrial sludge and whatever else is buried in the Bay would be a true environmental success story.

On January 13, 2016 the South San Francisco City Council approved spending $25,000 on a topographical study of landfill subsidence at Oyster Point. A similar proposal is on the January 20, 2016 Harbor Commission agenda. In what appears to be a goodwill gesture Harbor District general manager Steve McGrath is recommending the commission approve $25,000 for a landfill subsidence topographical study. McGrath’s staff report specifies that the money would not set a cost-sharing precedent and is not a commitment to correct landfill subsidence resulting from a pre-existing condition. The scope of the study has not been determined however it appears to be a first step in addressing decades of landfill subsidence. The study will need to consider current King Tide conditions and future flood conditions based on projected sea level rise and additional subsidence.




Sabrina Brennan, Harbor Commissioner

Sabrina Brennan, Harbor Commissioner

In 2012, Sabrina was elected to the San Mateo County Harbor District Board of Commissioners. Receiving the highest number of votes (120,656) from a pool of six candidates and currently serving a four year term.

In 2009, she completed a term on the Midcoast Community Council, an elected municipal advisory council to the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors.

To learn more about Brennan and the happenings at our harbors in San Mateo County CLICK HERE

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