Doors Slam on County Quest for Site to Bury Toxic Waste

Times Staff Writer

When county officials asked the Newhall Land & Farming Co.'s permission to test the geological characteristics in a canyon it owns near Magic Mountain, the company replied with a swift “out of the question.”

When the same officials approached Tejon Ranch Co., seeking to bore test holes in the firm’s Oso Canyon land near Gorman, the company’s executives replied with a polite “no.”

In fact, everywhere Los Angeles County officials have turned in their quest for a place to bury the county’s toxic wastes, doors have quietly but firmly closed.

Four potential sites, all in the desert north of the San Fernando Valley, are considered to be sufficiently remote from water supplies and cities and are believed to have secure geological underpinnings.

But the county has been able to test the geological formation beneath only one, a parcel in Hi Vista east of Lancaster that became county property years ago when the owner failed to pay taxes.


The fourth site is just south of Rosamond Dry Lake on Edwards Air Force Base. The military has a policy against allowing public landfills on its land.

The overriding problem, county officials say, is that landowners and neighbors in each of the areas have balked at the county’s plan to build a better landfill.

“People hear the words toxic waste and they freeze in their tracks,” said Kieran Bergin, a county Sanitation Districts engineer.

‘Rotten Track Record’

“We have the technology to make this thing safe,” he said. “But persuading the public of that, after the rotten track record at other landfills like BKK in West Covina, is an entirely different question.”

The embattled Ben K. Kazarian Landfill in West Covina closed Nov. 1, four months after 19 nearby families were evacuated when explosive levels of methane gas were detected in their homes. Ground-water contamination has also been found under BKK, making it one of several toxic-waste landfills in California found to be leaking.

“We’re seeing the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard)phenomenon in operation here,” said Jo Anne Darcy, an aide to county Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, whose district includes all four potential sites.

The county has proposed a multimillion-dollar regional system of waste treatment plants in industrial sectors. The plants would chemically alter toxic wastes, turning them into less hazardous dry cakes and rocklike materials.

Dry residues would be trucked through the San Fernando Valley to a clay-lined “residuals repository,” a dry desert landfill that officials say will not leak into the soil or ground water like conventional moist landfills have.

This month, the county is expected to release a list of 20 potential waste-treatment sites in industrial zones throughout the county, all of them up for sale.

But, if no community is willing to accept a repository for the treated wastes, Bergin and other county officials say, the county may find itself in a crisis created by illegal dumpers or its dependency on profit-motivated waste disposers.

“If there were a half-dozen decent landfills operating in the county, we wouldn’t be pushing so hard for our own repository,” said Mark Volmert, an aide to Supervisor Peter F. Schabarum. “But we relied on a single private landfill for the last five years, and it was called BKK. That scenario is simply not acceptable anymore.”

Without a repository in the county, private landfill owners in other regions will control the hazardous waste market, setting dumping prices as they please and running facilities that “simply are not as safe as what we have proposed,” engineer Bergin said.

Wastes Trucked 200 Miles

The county’s wastes are now trucked 200 miles north of Los Angeles to toxic dumps near Bakersfield and Santa Barbara. But the Kettleman Hills dump outside Bakersfield is plagued with safety violations and is suspected by federal Environmental Protection Agency officials of leaking.

County officials say they fear it is simply a matter of time before both sites are closed, leaving the county with no place to turn. Moreover, the trucks that haul wastes out of the county are expected add “tremendously” to hazards on freeways and roads, Bergin said.

For those reasons, persuading the public to accept extensive treatment and dry burial, a system used in Denmark and Germany for several years but never tried on a large scale in this country, may be the toughest and “the single most important job we’ve ever tackled,” Bergin said.

Indeed, residents of Hi Vista and Lake Los Angeles, two tiny communities on the eastern edge of the Antelope Valley, are ready to do battle after learning that Hi Vista is one of the sites proposed by the county. Because the Hi Vista site is on county land, county geologists received immediate approval to take soil samples from the area--an opportunity they have been denied at the other sites.

Site May Be Suitable

The geological borings, taken at depths of up to 100 feet this summer, revealed a hard rock structure that indicates the site may be suitable, Bergin said. However, tests to depths of 700 feet will be needed, and an extensive environmental impact report will be required before the site can be proposed for landfill construction.

In the face of the preliminary findings, the Wilsona School District’s Board of Education in Lake Los Angeles unanimously voted last week to oppose the repository, which would be built about five miles northeast of Wilsona School.

The Hi-Desert Citizens Against Pollution, an organization created this year to fight an unrelated proposal by Space Ordnance Systems to incinerate toxic wastes in Hi Vista, is spearheading the fight against the county.

Betty Davis, president of the group, said the residuals repository “is a fancy name for a dump.” “We’re very distrustful because of the contamination found beneath the Stringfellow Acid Pits and the leaks at BKK landfill,” she said.

Hi Vista residents have demanded a public meeting to air their fears and learn more about the treatment system proposed by the county, Davis said.

Public Involvement a ‘Must’

Antonovich’s aide, Darcy, said public involvement “is an absolute must, and we will continue to have public meetings, as we already have done.”

At this point, Darcy said, “People just don’t understand how safe a residuals repository really is, as compared to an old landfill.”

Prospects at the other sites are also discouraging, county officials said.

County officials have stressed that the locations proposed for geological testing were chosen using data from an extensive study conducted by experts from all seven Southern California counties.

Bergin said sites in all seven counties were considered, and they had to meet four major criteria that “wiped out about 95%of the land in all of Southern California.”

Because of federal and state laws, the sites had to be 2,000 feet from homes, could not be within a national monument or Indian reservation and had to have suitable geology as determined by existing maps, he said.