After the 1971 Sylmar earthquake, many residents of Ronna Bond's upper-middle-class Granada Hills neighborhood lived for a week on the streets, afraid to return to their damaged homes. They shared what little water they had and fed each other with barbecued food from their defrosting freezers.
"We depended on each other. We didn't have water, electricity or gas for a week. Nobody had a glass to drink out of, or a dish or anything. We all pulled together," recalls Bond, 45, a mother of three.
As the years passed, homes were sold, people came and went, and many neighbors again became strangers.
Now, a proposal to more than double the size of the nearby Sunshine Canyon Landfill, above Granada Hills, is reverberating through the neighborhood with the same unifying effect as the quake, as residents rally to fight the dump.
The North Valley Coalition, a group of several hundred homeowners, has united conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats in the fight to close the 230-acre dump.
The group, formed last fall, gained respect from local authorities as one of the most well-organized, sophisticated and effective of the hundreds of homeowner groups throughout the area.
Spearheading the effort is Mary Edwards, 56, a schoolteacher's wife who quit her job as a social worker to raise seven children. Edwards, one of the dump's closest neighbors, now reads such books as "The Chemistry of Water Analysis" and can spew out such statistics as the cost per ton of trash in Philadelphia and how many tons a year come into a dump in Staten Island.
"Oh, can I talk about garbage," says Edwards, a slightly overweight, frowzy woman who talks in meandering sentences punctuated with frequent peals of laughter. Her demeanor belies a mind like a steel trap. She spends an average of three hours a day--and sometimes much more--fighting the dump.
'Someone's Got to Do It'
"Sometimes I say, 'Oh, goodness, I wish someone else would fight this fight for us,' but it just got to the point where someone's got to do it," she said.
Wayde Hunter, an engineer who got involved in the anti-dump movement because he says he fears for the health of his two sons, distributes leaflets, licks envelopes and faithfully attends the group's weekly meetings at a local elementary school even though it means missing his beloved computer club.
An unforeseen payoff has been that Hunter has met more neighbors in the last few months than in all of the nine years that he has lived in the neighborhood.
"It's brought us together," Bond says. "People are waving, stopping, talking, asking questions. People see each other, and they'll say, 'What have you heard about the dump? What's the latest?' "
"We all want to protect our health and safety by closing down the dump," says Fern Eisenberg, another resident who devotes several hours a week to the cause. "When I'm shopping in the Alpha Beta now, when I check out, the cashier says, 'What's happening with the dump?' and I fill her in."
The dump was, for most of its 30 years, a small landfill that took in only 70 tons of trash a week, much of it such innocuous refuse as weed clippings. But the dump has grown drastically in recent years as more and more city and county dumps have closed, creating a dire countywide garbage-disposal crisis and political battles between the city and county over trash disposal.
Today, officials say, the dump takes in about 7,000 tons of trash a day. Its owner, Houston-based Browning Ferris Industries, has applied to the city and county for permission to more than double its size and extend operations well into the 21st Century. Officials say the decision, which would have to be approved by the city, county and state, is more than a year away.
Residents say the dump makes their neighborhood smell, sends trash swirling through their yards and parks, covers everything with a fine grit and lowers property values. The dump poses a health hazard not only to its neighbors, they maintain, but to people all over Los Angeles because it is so close to the Los Angeles Aqueduct and Los Angeles Reservoir, the city's main source of water.
Since last fall, when homeowners learned of plans to expand the dump, the coalition has grown from a determined handful of aggravated residents, who met in one another's living rooms, to a core group of more than three dozen residents who spend several hours each week working against the dump. Hundreds more attend important meetings.
"We're mobilizing anybody and everybody in the community and using the talents that are there," says Ken Bell, a 16-year resident who edits a four-page newsletter with articles on dump issues written by residents, which is circulated to thousands of homeowners.
Another resident, Mary Ellen Crosby, co-chairman of a communications committee, brings a special expertise to the task. A mother of three who works part time as a makeup artist, Crosby employs the tricks of grass-roots politics she learned and used more than 25 years ago to help her former husband, Bob, get elected to the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.
'Phone Tree' Organized
Under Crosby's direction, committee members set up a pyramid-type "phone tree" capable of quickly mobilizing residents of more than 70 streets within two miles of the dump.
The communications system is used to get the word out for important group meetings. An anticipated use is organizing a campaign of calls and letters to elected officials and public agencies such as the Air Quality Management District.
"Can you imagine the potential of such an organization?" Crosby asks.
A political committee, which meets as often as three times a week, seeks to cultivate a positive relationship with elected officials who have the power to determine the dump's future. The group works closely with Los Angeles City Councilman Hal Bernson, who lives near the dump, which is in his council district.
Last week, about a dozen group members met with Bernson and Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes the county territory into which the dump's owner wants to expand.
"We were just tremendously impressed with this group," says Leeta Pistone, Antonovich's senior deputy for the San Fernando Valley.
"They are not screamers. They are not NIMBYs," Pistone says, referring to the derogatory acronym "Not In My Backyard," which applies to groups that oppose projects in their own neighborhoods but don't mind seeing them elsewhere. "They appear to be very reasonable, reputable people."
John Schwarze, administrator for the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning, who also participated in the meeting, says he was amazed at how cool, polite and well-prepared the group was. Members even expressed willingness to join a coalition to find alternate dump sites, Schwarze says.
"I was pretty impressed, I have to admit that," Schwarze says. "We deal with hundreds of neighborhood groups. We have quite a few groups who literally come in here screaming at the top of their lungs, threatening to sue us right off the bat, and who will just not even consider the fact that there will be two sides to the story."
North Valley Coalition members, he says, are "above average. They all seem to be level-headed, willing to discuss the situation."
Dottie Main, 58, who spends three to four hours a day sorting through dump-related materials at her kitchen table, says the group counsels its members not to engage in disputes but to calmly state their views. If the other person isn't receptive, group members are told to "just smile and walk away, still being friendly," Main says.
"We know that screaming and yelling is not going to do it. It takes thinking and being courteous, money and political strength," Main says.
The group taps the skills of the neighborhood's large stock of scientists, engineers, business people and other white-collar workers, as well as housewives with the time to devote to the cause.
A research committee tackles technical and environmental issues, its members immersing themselves in studying ground-water contamination, methane emissions, airborne particulates per million, soil-density studies and other data. Asking questions, pushing for more studies, they regularly telephone the air-quality board, Regional Water Quality Board, Los Angeles Sanitation Department and Los Angeles County Regional Planning Commission.
Frequently, they are unsatisfied with the answers they receive, Main says. So a fund-raising committee is seeking to nurture a treasury healthy enough to pay for studies into possible environmental threats and to sustain a legal effort against the dump.
A media committee prepares newsletters, press releases and fact sheets, and a manpower committee distributes them.
There is even an "inter-group" committee, which seeks advice from other homeowner associations that have done battle with dumps, and seeks to link with other groups with a common interest.
Some group members are attempting to gather "a dossier" on Browning Ferris, documenting what the group considers to be poor management practices, says Bell, the editor of the newsletter on the dump.
The careful planning and organization of group members was demonstrated one night last week when Bernson came to speak to the group.
The meeting started at 7 p.m. About a dozen committee members gave reports and speeches. An audience of about 300 was exhorted to call the air-quality board to report problems and to donate the equivalent of one month's utility bills to the dump battle. Group members circulated lists, fact sheets and a health survey designed to determine whether the dump is causing cancer, respiratory illnesses or diseases.
Group leaders had promised Bernson that he could begin speaking by 7:30. He took the podium at 7:32.
After a short speech, residents subjected Bernson to nearly an hour of polite but pointed questions.
"What are the specific levels of toxins measured in deep-well, water and dirt tests versus government maximum levels?" one questioner asked.
"Mr. Bernson, how much, if any, has the landfill or its representatives contributed to your political campaign?" asked another.
"After your election, do we have your assurance in writing that you will fully support the closing of the Sunshine dump?" a third resident asked. The audience laughed as a man in the front row grabbed a pen from his shirt pocket and thrust it at Bernson.
"I've rarely seen anything like that anywhere in the city," commented Greig Smith, Bernson's top aide. "I couldn't have written those questions myself."