'Garbage Wars' Simmering Again : Supervisors, Council Dispute Use of Canyons as Landfills

Times Staff Writer

From the quiet ridge where Mulholland Drive narrows into a bumpy dirt lane,two verdant canyons lead into the foothills of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Sullivan and Rustic canyons command an exclusive corner of Southern California: to the north, the luxury homes of Bel Air Knolls, Bel Air Skycrest and the Encino hills are arranged neatly along peaceful cul de sacs and wide streets. To the south, a tangle of deep canyons winds toward Brentwood and the Pacific Palisades.

Potential Depositories

The Los Angeles City Council believes that Sullivan and Rustic canyons--and nearby Mission Canyon--are enclaves best suited for open parkland and posh communities.

But to a majority of the county Board of Supervisors, the canyons are potential depositories for the thousands of tons of garbage produced in Los Angeles every day.

Now, a heated dispute over how best to use the county-owned canyons--a disagreement that has erupted in two so-called "garbage wars" between the city and county since 1977--has reared its head again.

"If these are not proper sites, then where is?" said Supervisor Pete Schabarum. "This city produces 35,000 tons of trash a day, and it's got to go someplace . . . but the city is saying, 'Not in my backyard.' "

Robert Conheim, attorney for the California Waste Management Board, said the supervisors are pressing for sites within the Los Angeles city limits in part because "if they accept the burden for the city, there's a fear they'll get nicked come election time. That's the politics of it."

But Councilman Marvin Braude, in whose 11th District the canyons lie, says the sites are "wholly inappropriate" for municipal landfills.

"This is going to be a fantastic scenic parkway for all of Southern California to enjoy," Braude said last week as he looked out over the profusion of wildflowers and woods in Rustic Canyon.

"To talk about putting a garbage dump here is crazy, just crazy."

But, to make its point crystal clear, the board, led by Schabarum, refused last year to adopt the county's state-mandated Solid Waste Management Plan, hammered out over five years by representatives of the county's 83 cities, the supervisors and other local agencies.

'Getting Even'

Unless the City Council agrees to include the three canyons as potential landfill sites, Schabarum said last week, the supervisors will refuse to support the waste management plan, which requires the county's approval. And, until the plan is approved, no new waste-handling projects can go forward anywhere in Los Angeles County.

"I think Pete was just getting even with Los Angeles, demonstrating his clout and exercising his pique," said Councilwoman Joy Picus. "Urging the board to vote against the waste management plan was certainly not a responsible action."

So far, the impasse between the city and county has threatened only one significant project, a trash-to-energy plant in Long Beach. However, an emergency bill by Sen. Ralph Dills (D-Gardena) that allows the Long Beach project to move ahead was signed by the governor Thursday.

Angered by the county's failure to approve the waste management plan--now three years overdue--the California Waste Management Board has jumped into the fray.

Last week, the board asked the state attorney general's office to warn the supervisors that they could be sued unless they approve the long-overdue plan by June 10.

"We were being understanding about the political problems in Los Angeles and we granted extensions for three years," said George Eowan, the waste board's executive officer. "Now we want action. They may be sued; that's up to the attorney general."

The feud dates back to 1977, when the supervisors asked the City Council for a permit to reopen the Mission Canyon landfill, which is owned by the county but is within the city limits. The County Sanitation Districts closed the landfill in 1965 after a developer offered to allow the county to fill a series of nearby canyons, upon which the developer later built Mountaingate Golf Course.

Rejected Application

After the 1965 closure of Mission Canyon, the city allowed private schools, luxury homes and religious institutions to be built on the canyon's rim, and the County Sanitation Districts allowed their dumping permit in Mission Canyon to lapse. When the county approached the City Council to reopen Mission Canyon, first in 1977 and again in 1981, the council rejected the application.

"The county got lured into a developer's plan to fill up some other canyons, and all of a sudden the county had this unexpected new capacity for dumping garbage--a free lunch, so to speak," said Cindy Misakowski, an aide to Braude.

"But when they came back to Mission Canyon, they found that time had passed them by," she said. "They are still unwilling to understand that."

Even if named on the landfill list, the three canyons would not automatically become landfill sites. Public hearings and extensive environmental reports would be required, and the plan could be fought by the City Council.

But naming the canyons would give the supervisors a political edge that the City Council is refusing to concede, several council members said. If the canyons are named as potential landfill sites, the job of persuading other local municipalities that the sites should be rejected in the future could be a tough one, City Council members said.

At stake in Mission Canyon are years of work by residents of 150 homes who launched a sophisticated campaign in 1977 to rebuff the county's plan to reopen the landfill. Public hearings attracted movie stars and other wealthy residents of the area, and the powerful Hillside and Canyon Federation of homeowners' associations, which led the citizens' battle.

'Boggles the Mind'

Carole Stevens, president of the federation, said the county's new attempt to add Mission Canyon to a potential list of landfills, and to introduce nearby Rustic and Sullivan canyons as possible sites, "simply boggles the mind."

"What are you going to do with all the schoolchildren who attend schools out there, and what are you going to tell the churches?" she said.

"In the last two years a strong awareness has emerged that landfills do not work," Stevens said. "They are not a viable option for any community to have to live with, and I mean a wealthy community or a poor community."

Stevens said persistent methane leaks and seepage of other gases from the inactive Mission Canyon site still migrate underground to the adjacent neighborhoods, where she said municipal gas pipes have been replaced three times in the past 13 years after being corroded by landfill gas.

"Nobody knows exactly what's in these gases, and everybody agrees that landfills leak, no matter how much technology, how many gas recovery systems you use," she said.

Councilman Hal Bernson agreed. "Those days of placing a landfill by people and threatening the ground water and air (with contaminants) are over," he said. "The public is not going to put up with it anymore."

However, that view was challenged by county officials and by Eowan of the California Waste Management Board.

"I definitely think that landfills can work in an urban area," Eowan said. "Not only do I think that, but the Environmental Protection Agency thinks that. You need proper standards, good enforcement and the best technology."

At stake, too, are the futures of the remote and pristine Sullivan and Rustic Canyons a few miles to the west, which have never been used as landfills.

Home to Wildlife

The canyons, bordering Topanga State Park and a Boy Scout camp, are reached by fire roads and are a habitat for a variety of birds and wild animals.

Several council members have made it clear that they will not even consider the canyons as landfill sites.

"There is no access to those canyons, and the county would have to do an enormous amount of grading and cutting through the mountains to get to them," said Councilwoman Picus. "You can just imagine what the environmentalists are going to say about that."

Braude said the county "might as well dump (the garbage) all on the beach or into the ocean, because it would be the same as dumping in Rustic or Sullivan. You don't desecrate recreational resources for garbage dumps."

However, Schabarum and other county officials stand by their argument that Los Angeles should share the burden of having landfills inside the city limits.

Jim Easton, chief deputy director of the county Department of Public Works, said landfill space is running out quickly in the county, and new sites are needed.

"I wish there was some strategy, some magic that we could perform to create the kind of space we need," Easton said.

According to Eowan, the landfill capacity in the county will be cut in half in the next 10 years as numerous existing municipal dumps are filled up and closed. Selection of new landfills takes about seven years "because of all the permits and agencies involved," Eowan said, and for that reason Los Angeles "has to find a new site very quickly."

Schabarum said Mission Canyon is "the perfect choice" for a new landfill because it was previously used for landfilling and could be reopened with sophisticated new techniques that would protect local residents from hazards.

Proof Cited

He said two extensive environmental impact reports paid for by the county suggested several ways of safely operating a landfill in Mission Canyon, including the use of smog control techniques, gas collection systems, landscaping and restricted operating hours.

He cited the Puente Hills landfill, operated by the County Sanitation Districts, as proof that the county knows how to operate a hazard-free landfill.

Puente Hills is often cited by county and state officials as a "state of the art" landfill, although it too is sometimes plagued by methane migration problems.

Schabarum and city and county sanitation officials also argued that the cost of hauling garbage to remote landfills is prohibitive.

Sterling Beusch, a spokesman for the city Sanitation Bureau, said "costs to consumers will skyrocket" if Mission Canyon or another urban site is not approved for use.

Schabarum noted that the additional $20-million cost of hauling West Los Angeles garbage to remote landfills since 1981 "is a huge sum of money."

"Somebody is bearing the cost of 150 homeowners who were effective enough to disallow the use of Mission Canyon as a disposal site," Schabarum said.

But Stevens, who owns a home near Mission Canyon, claimed that residents are willing to pay to ensure their health against landfill hazards.

"In two years, I've not heard a single homeowner say a word about the added cost (of their garbage bill)," said Stevens. "I doubt most people even noticed it is there, but it's a good ploy on the part of elected officials to get their way by making it seem extremely costly."

Participation Cited

And Braude pointed out that 14,000 residents of West Los Angeles and Brentwood in March embarked upon the city-sponsored Curbside Recycling project to separate metals and glass from everyday rubbish, thus reducing the garbage volume in that section of Los Angeles.

"People are willing to work to keep landfills out," he said.

Nevertheless, Schabarum said, he has asked county staff to rewrite the disputed county Solid Waste Management Plan to include Mission, Sullivan and Rustic canyons. He said that within two months, the county's version of the plan will be sent out to all local cities for their approval.

Schabarum said he hopes that the City Council will reconsider its position when the new plan is presented.

However, several council members said the city's attitude has not changed since the council voted 11 to 3 in 1981 to refuse to reopen Mission Canyon.

Said Hal Bernson, "I don't think you're going to find anybody on the City Council who is in Schabarum's corner."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
58°