Blythe Sees Gold in Garbage From San Gabriel Valley

Times Staff Writer

Some residents hope that one man's trash turns out to be this depressed desert community's newest treasure.

The trash would be hauled about 200 miles by rail from the San Gabriel Valley and either recycled or burned, providing new industry and employment in Blythe.

Such an idea might provide at least a partial answer to the question of what to do with the 45,000 tons of trash generated every day by Los Angeles County.

It could also prove a boon for a town so eager for jobs and growth that its residents held a pro-prison parade and sent a delegation to Sacramento last year to plead with the state to build a prison nearby.

Blythe's campaign was successful, and the medium-security facility is now under construction in the Chuckwalla Valley, 19 miles west of the city. When completed in two years, it will employ 700 workers.

Even some state waste managment officials have expressed tentative interest in the trash plan.

Although the plan is only in its formative stages and has several outspoken opponents, the Blythe City Council recently allotted $1,000 to help pay for a study to determine if it is feasible to import trash to be burned as fuel by industrial plants that would be built near the city.

"The total council isn't sold on the idea, but I think for a town like this it can be an excellent economic development program," said Councilman Robert I. Means.

"This town needs some jobs."

Mayor Bill Martindale said Blythe, which sits along Interstate 10 just west of the Colorado River border with Arizona, has lost two-thirds of its farm jobs since the 1960s because of automation and the decline of small farms. Its mining industry "has basically died out," he said, leaving the city heavily dependent on tourists.

The town is now mainly a food and gas stop for motorists and a supply base for boat owners and water skiers headed for camps and resorts along the Colorado River about a mile away.

The mayor, an asthmatic who moved with his family to Blythe as a child, said youngsters growing up in Blythe face such a bleak economic future--no job or a low-paying job--that most move away.

"That's the reason so many people were happy to see the possibility of a prison," he said. "You're talking about something that can employ people with a decent-paying job and decent benefits."

The trash plan originated with a private company seeking an alternative to proposals to build waste-to-energy plants in the San Gabriel Valley, where residents have charged that the plants could endanger health by releasing toxic chemicals and increasing smog.

Opposition to such plants caused the backers of one proposed waste-to-energy facility in Irwindale to withdraw plans for an incinerator that would burn 3,000 tons of trash a day and to start planning a smaller facility.

Bruce Milne, vice president of CMRR Inc., which had been hired by opponents of the Irwindale plant to come up with alternatives to waste-to-energy plants, said his firm suggested to officials of San Gabriel Valley cities that trash be hauled to the desert by rail. Milne said that it is cheaper to haul trash long distances by rail and that railroads would be willing to handle the business.

But officials doubted that desert communities would accept the trash.

Milne then began canvassing the desert for areas that might see the economic gains from trash disposal. He found Blythe.

Since then, other proposals to haul trash to remote areas by rail have emerged, triggering statewide interest. Both the state Waste Management Board and the Southern California Assn. of Governments are proposing studies to test the feasibility of the concept.

Not everyone is sold on the idea, even in job-hungry Blythe.

Teddy Dekens, a Blythe farmer, said he doesn't want Los Angeles' trash in Blythe.

Dekens said the idea "stinks."

But his partner in the Best Hay Co., Alan Bebout, said the plan might yield financial benefits. "If somebody's going to make a bunch of money from it," Bebout said, "it's fine . . . as long as I get my share."

Standing behind a counter in his auto parts store and talking over the whirr of fans on a 100-degree day, Mayor Martindale explained why he likes living in Blythe.

"We have a lot of open space, recreation, the river, the desert," he said. "We have a lot of potential around here."

But the town also has its drawbacks, including scorching summers (average July high: 108 degrees), and the lowest average family income in Riverside County ($17,000 a year).

Councilman Means, who owns a real estate office, said he wants Blythe to retain its rural flavor. But he said the population in the area (7,766 in Blythe and another 6,000 in outlying regions) is too small to attract upscale shops and restaurants.

"You can't afford to build a nice restaurant," he said. "That holds true of department stores as well. . . . You almost have to go out of town to get any culture or anything."

'Difficult to Go Anyplace'

Although civic boosters describe Blythe as "the hub" in the middle of a circle that encompasses Las Vegas, San Diego, the Mexican border, Los Angeles and Phoenix, the fact is, said Means, that "it's difficult to go anyplace, because the first two hours of driving time is desert no matter which direction you are going."

Means said the open space around Blythe gives the city the opportunity to place industrial plants, such as those that would burn trash, far enough from town to avoid pollution problems.

Under a tentative CMRR Inc. plan, trash would be gathered in the San Gabriel Valley. Recyclable materials would be separated, and the remainder, much of it paper products, would be baled into what is labeled as refuse-derived fuel and brought by rail to Midland, about 20 miles north of Blythe.

Means said the trash plants would be "far enough out of town that we won't have any side effects whatsoever." With the prevailing winds blowing from west to east, any pollutants would be dispersed over unpopulated areas of Arizona, he said.

"Now, Arizona might not like that, but it wouldn't be something that would affect us even if there were some emissions that could be potentially harmful."

Among those who aren't sold is Councilman Warren R. Port, a retired optometrist who has lived in Blythe for 40 years. Port said there is no question that the city's economy is depressed, but "I'm appalled that anyone would desecrate our beautiful Palo Verde Valley by burning Los Angeles garbage here. Can you imagine what a trainload of garbage would smell like in August, when it's 115 degrees?"

'Outrage' Predicted

Port added: "I'm a longtime resident here, and when the people become generally aware of this happening, they will rise up in outrage."

Visitors coming into Blythe enter on either of the two main streets, Lovekin Boulevard and Hobsonway. They find a town rich in fast-food stands, budget motels and gas stations. Some stay overnight, but most stop only long enough to pick up a quick meal, a tank of gasoline and ice for their coolers before heading to the river or to Los Angeles, 228 miles west, or Phoenix, 182 miles east.

Those who spend more time in Blythe find a K mart, a couple of shopping centers anchored by chain supermarkets and drugstores, schools, parks, a community college and a city hall. There are few cultural attractions. One walk-in movie house is open, but the big screen of a long-closed drive-in theater sits deteriorating amid a field of weeds.

Residential streets fan out from the business district. Few of the homes are new, and, in fact, only three homes were built in the past three years. Beyond the homes lie farms where cotton, grain, lettuce, melons, cabbage, cauliflower and other crops are grown with irrigation water from the Colorado River.

Environmental Impact

Some community leaders who said the trash project deserves study are nevertheless concerned about the environmental impact.

"I've kind of got an open mind, but when you talk about moving garbage into an area from some other area, people get real emotional," said Stanley Jessop, who runs the local ambulance service and heads the Blythe Chamber of Commerce.

"People don't want to have their beautiful valley inundated with all the garbage from Los Angeles."

Residents are especially concerned about preserving the purity of the air, Jessop said.

"One of the things I like about living in Blythe is that I can smoke a pack and a half of cigarettes a day and it doesn't affect me as much," Jessop said. "I've heard it said--and I don't know if it's by qualified people or not--that you get in heavy smog areas and you take a guy who is jogging three hours a day and he'll take as much stuff in the lungs as a guy out here smoking a pack and a half."

State Interested

Sherman Roodzant, chairman of the state Waste Management Board, said he had at one time dismissed the notion of hauling trash long distances by rail as impractical, but the strident opposition to new landfills and waste-to-energy plants in populated areas has convinced him that the feasibility of rail hauls should be explored.

Hauling trash by rail is common in Europe, Roodzant said, but has not been done in California. San Francisco sends its trash to an Alameda County dump 60 miles away but uses trucks.

Roodzant said that landfills and waste-to-energy plants can be operated safely in urban areas and that long-distance hauling incurs a needless expense. But if urban and remote areas wish to "strike a bargain" on trash disposal, he said, there is no reason to stop them.

The Waste Management Board staff is beginning to organize a study of hauling waste by rail.

The Southern California Assn. of Governments has offered to undertake a waste-by-rail study for 28 San Gabriel Valley cities, which have formed a waste task force, if the cities will help pay the cost.

Del Biagi, director of the Bureau of Sanitation of the city of Los Angeles, said the city is hiring a consulting firm to explore a range of disposal alternatives, including long-distance hauling to remote areas.

Intrigued by Concept

Blythe City Manager Terry Matz said Blythe is not interested in becoming home to a giant landfill or mass-burn incinerator but is intrigued by the concept advanced by CMRR.

The CMRR proposal envisions the creation of an industrial center along the Santa Fe rail line north of Blythe. The center would contain recycling plants and use industrial processes that would burn refuse-derived fuel in place of coal or natural gas.

"You have to get by the idea that people are sending trash (to Blythe). . . . Instead, they are sending fuel," Matz said.

C. J. (Case) Houson, who heads CMRR and was formerly director of sanitation and flood control in San Diego County, said the trash would arrive in Blythe virtually odor-free.

Little Food Waste

"There is no garbage in our garbage," Houson said. He explained that most of the food waste in Southern California goes into garbage disposers and sewers, not into the municipal waste stream. In any event, he said, the refuse sent to Blythe would be processed before being loaded onto a train.

Houson said he envisions a system that would work this way:

A number of trash stations would be established in the San Gabriel Valley, each receiving 400 to 500 tons of trash a day. The stations would have systems to separate the trash. Grass clippings, for example, would be sent elsewhere for composting; ferrous metals would be sold to dealers. About half the trash, mostly paper products, would be shredded and baled into refuse-derived fuel.

The refuse-derived fuel would be shipped via rail to Blythe. Houson said Blythe is a desirable location because it has natural resources, such as deposits of gypsum and limestone, that could be used by certain industries. It would be an ideal spot for a cement plant, for example, he said, or an aluminum smelter. The smelting plant could receive aluminum recovered from the trash and also use refuse-derived fuel to power the smelting process.

Other Options

There are, of course, other options for trash hauled to the desert. The trash separation would not necessarily have to be done before the trash is loaded onto trains. The trash could be sent to Blythe and separated there, creating more jobs for the town's economy.

Or a waste-to-energy plant could be built in Blythe or some other desert community to burn trash to create steam and then electricity, which could be sold. Another alternative would be to ship trash by rail to a desert landfill.

One potential landfill site is at Eagle Mountain, midway between Blythe and Indio. Kaiser Steel Corp., which closed its iron mine at Eagle Mountain in 1981, is looking at the possibility of dumping trash into the iron ore pits.

"The whole idea of hauling trash to remote areas seems to be picking up momentum," said Billie Greer, a spokeswoman for Kaiser. She said a number of people have approached Kaiser with the suggestion that it create a landfill at Eagle Mountain, and the company intends to examine the possibility.

Doug Isbell, director of waste management in Riverside County, said Eagle Mountain has the physical characteristics required for a landfill. But whether hauling trash to Eagle Mountain or Blythe is economically feasible is unclear, he said, and it is also uncertain whether Riverside County would accept outside trash.

"Traditionally, counties have solved their own waste problems," Isbell said. "It would be a change in philosophy."

Gill V. Hicks, principal planner with the Southern California Assn. of Governments, said Los Angeles County generates so much trash that more than one desert site might be necessary, and there could be a variety of disposal options from recycling to dumping to burning. The association's proposed waste-by-rail study would include an economic analysis of the alternatives.

Railway Waste Management Inc., a small firm that has been trying to interest both the city of Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley cities in hauling trash by rail to Eagle Mountain, has suggested that the cost would be $35 to $40 a ton, compared to the $10 a ton it now costs to dump trash at Los Angeles County landfills. But county landfills are expected to run out of space within six years, and the cost of dumping is also expected to rise.

Railway Prices

CMRR says that its plan could produce a disposal fee of $20 a ton because of the money made from refuse-derived fuel and recycling. Both companies base their figures on prices quoted to them by the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railways, which have indicated a willingness to haul trash. The railroads, citing confidentiality with customers, will not publicly disclose the prices they have quoted.

Hicks said no plan can succeed unless desert communities are willing to accept trash. In the Blythe proposal, the lure is jobs. In the case of Eagle Mountain, Riverside County could gain millions of dollars from a tax on the refuse dumped there.

Betty Pitts, who manages the Automobile Club of Southern California's office in Blythe and has lived in the city since 1943, said the potential environmental damage would outweigh any gains.

"I can't see why we should add the burning of trash from Los Angeles to the agricultural burning we have," she said. "I think we're asking for a lot of problems if we take on Los Angeles's trash."

'Create More Jobs'

But William J. Blum, a retired telephone company employee who lives along the river outside of Blythe, said that the town badly needs an economic boost and that the trash proposal might help. "I think it is a good idea," he said. "It would create more jobs."

Walnut Mayor Harvey Holden, who heads the San Gabriel Valley city task force on trash, said there are so many unanswered questions about waste-by-rail that it is too early to judge its feasibility.

The proposal to ship waste to the desert grew out of opposition to waste-to-energy plants and the pollutants they would release into the air. But, Holden said, studies may show that emissions from train engines hauling waste would generate more pollution than a waste-to-energy plant.

Blythe Mayor Martindale said many environmental questions must be answered before Blythe agrees to support a trash project.

Martindale said the council's attitude is that if importing trash "can provide an income to the local residents through jobs and other revenues and be a clean business process, we would consider it."

He added: "We're looking at the environment; we don't want to damage it in any way. We have some fine air compared to Los Angeles. At least we can't see what we're breathing."

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