San Marcos Trash Plant Gets Final County OK

Times Staff Writer

After years of debate ending in a three-hour public hearing Tuesday night, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors has given final approval to a privately run trash-fired power plant.

The board decided that the power plant, to be built at a landfill in southern San Marcos near the rural community of Elfin Forest, would not significantly damage the environment.

The 3-1 vote, with Susan Golding dissenting and Leon Williams absent, removed the final administrative hurdle to the construction of the $120-million project.

“Onward and upward,” a jubilant Richard Chase, managing director of North County Resource Recovery Associates, said after the decision, adding that he hopes to begin construction before the end of the year and open the plant in late 1988.


“I think probably everybody is glad it’s over,” Chase said.

He was wrong. A few minutes later, Bruce Hamilton, president of North County Concerned Citizens, a group opposed to the plant, said the opponents would fight on in the courts, where five lawsuits against the county and the developer are already pending.

“It’s not over yet,” Hamilton said.

Although construction of the plant was approved in January by the City of San Marcos after 14 nights of public hearings, the Board of Supervisors, which oversees operation of the county’s landfills, had the right to block the project if it was found to pose a threat to the environment.


The board took more than two hours of testimony Tuesday night from proponents and opponents of the project and from government officials who have studied the proposed plant, which would burn more than 1,000 tons of trash a day, converting it into enough electricity to power 40,000 homes.

“Even though some environmental effects of this project cannot be fully mitigated, the project provides a better means of disposing of the 1 1/2 million tons of trash generated in North County annually,” Chief Administrative Officer Clifford Graves told the board.

Opponents of the trash plant called the environmental impact report on the project “biased and inadequate,” but they spent most of their allotted time Tuesday arguing in favor of alternative composting plants they said should be built in four North County communities--none of them San Marcos.

The plants would take trash, grind it, mix it with water or sewage sludge, and convert it to compost for use on freeway landscaping, golf courses and elsewhere.


“It’s a very simple process,” said Jack Leach, an Escondido resident and an opponent of the trash-burning process.

Leach said the composting plants would be more visually appealing, more efficient, less expensive and less polluting than the proposed incinerator, which will cover five acres and include a smokestack 300 feet tall.

Leach and Hamilton asked the board to delay its decision for six months to allow the county’s staff to study fully the alternate proposal.

“It seems like 180 days is a little bit of time when we’re looking at something we’re going to have to live with for 55 years, which for most of us is the rest of our lives,” Hamilton said to cheers in the meeting hall, which was so crowded many spectators had to stand throughout the three-hour hearing. Some stood outside and watched the debate through open windows.


Representatives of resource recovery associates, however, said the composting alternative would not work because the market for compost is too small to make such a project economically feasible.

In the end, board members said they could find no reason to overturn their earlier support for the trash-burning project, even if they believed that composting could work just as well.

Supervisor Paul Eckert, whose district includes the site of the plant, said the decision was a “tough decision for all board members” to make. Eckert, who consistently has supported the project, once told the San Marcos City Council that if it rejected the proposal the county would likely approve building it 500 feet away, outside the city limits and out of the city’s control.

Eckert tried to assure the opponents that the plant will operate safely and cleanly. He said the 111 conditions placed upon the plant by the San Marcos City Council would be strictly enforced.


“If this plant does not comply with all conditions placed upon it, it will not operate,” Eckert said. “And after a reasonable period of time of non-operation . . . the plant will be removed.”

Golding said she voted against the project mainly because of her concerns over the county’s decision in 1982 allowing the Herzog Contracting Corp., which operates the county’s landfills, to profit by assigning to another company the right to build the power plant.

“That option agreement was incredibly bad for the county,” Golding said. “They just gave away the store.”