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Mounting Opposition to LANCER Pushes Waste-to-Energy Plans to the Back Burner

Times Staff Writer

A few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, the state’s only working waste-to-energy garbage incinerator puffs away as the lone exception to that rarest of California occurrences--a nationwide trend that refuses to catch on here.

The City of Commerce incinerator is small as they go, burning 300 tons of trash a day just off the Santa Ana Freeway. Only a year ago, officials predicted that it would soon be joined by the much-larger LANCER incinerator in South-Central Los Angeles and 23 others across the state to reduce a mountain’s worth of garbage to ash. As a side financial benefit, the plants would make electric power for sale to local utilities.

But fewer than a handful of the communities asked by boosters to accept incinerators in California have accepted, and many have declined with the ferocity of enraged piranhas. Though nearly 100 plants have been built by local authorities and private entrepreneurs in other states, the quick-moving opposition here has managed to kill the boom before it really got started.

“This last year has been kind of a difficult time,” said John Rowden of the state Waste Management Board, which led the push for waste-to-energy plants as an alternative to burying trash in landfills.

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The big blow came last month when Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, in a change of signals brought on by rising public opposition, called on Los Angeles sanitation officials to abandon their $235-million plan for the LANCER incinerator.

Bradley gave credence to the fears of many residents that questions remain about the risk from air pollutants, including cancer-causing dioxins, that such plants emit. A study conducted for the city said the emissions were safe, but Bradley rejected the study’s findings even before they were submitted for review to state health officials. He became the most prominent local voice raised against trash burning and echoed the stance of residents in the area near the plant and environmental groups all over the city.

Bradley’s recommendation, which must still be approved or rejected by the City Council, was more costly to waste-to-energy proponents than the loss of a single plant. City sanitation officials had wanted to build additional plants in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside after the first incinerator began operating, in hopes that all of the city’s household garbage could be burned--instead of buried--by the end of the century.

Those three Los Angeles plants would have given the waste-to-energy industry a showcase, smack in the center of the West’s media capital, that boosters hoped would let them sell the idea to officials all along the West Coast. The industry’s top two firms battled hard for the Los Angeles contract before it was awarded to the Ogden Martin Corp., builders of plants in Oregon and elsewhere.

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“What Mayor Bradley did is a very loud signal,” said Barry Commoner, the environmental leader who ran for President in 1980 and who now leads opposition to trash burning from New York. “It destroys the whole posture of city officials that incinerators are the only alternative to landfills.”

Even before Bradley acted, the future of waste-to-energy incinerators no longer looked as bright as it did a few years ago when the state Legislature passed laws encouraging the building of incinerators.

Burning first became attractive to sanitation officials not for the electricity, which is in surplus in much of California, but because the ash takes up only a fraction of the landfill space needed to bury raw rubbish.

If new landfills could be cheaply and easily found, the high cost of building incinerators would scare off most cities. But as the suburbs expand farther into the country, there is less space for new landfills. Problems with contamination of water supplies and objections to new landfills near neighborhoods make it even more difficult for officials to obtain the regulatory permits for new landfills. Many officials began to embrace the incinerators, which are common in Europe and Japan.

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Health-Risk Studies

But as public opposition has grown, lawmakers from Southern California have turned increasingly against waste-to-energy, adding requirements that extensive health-risk studies be conducted and that strict air pollution controls be imposed.

The strongest opposition in Southern California came from homeowners who already were upset by the expansion of landfills near their neighborhoods. The largest group, the California Alliance in Defense of Residential Environments (CADRE), started among activists in the San Gabriel Valley then grew into a force that challenged incinerators in several counties. They also joined forces with national organizations devoted to stopping trash burning.

“We’ve been fighting and agonizing for the last four years,” said Wil Baca of CADRE. “We have now created a strong, competent base that can mobilize very quickly.”

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The group’s opposition helped kill plans for a privately run incinerator in Irwindale that would have burned trash from several San Gabriel Valley cities. The state Energy Commission decided against the project earlier this year, but the sponsors have said they might seek permits for a smaller project.

An ambitious project in Redwood City also fell through this year when the San Francisco Board of Supervisors voted 9 to 1 against joining in, leaving the incinerator without a steady supply of garbage to burn. A guaranteed source of trash is necessary because the plants need to operate at full speed in order to generate and sell enough electricity to justify the high cost of building the plants.

Plans Scaled Down

The agency with the state’s most ambitious plans for incinerators--the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts--has been forced by the public outcry to seriously scale back its plans to burn half the county’s trash by 2000. “We definitely see a slowdown,” said spokesman Joe Haworth Jr. “Siting new landfills is very difficult--but siting refuse-to-energy plants is becoming nigh-on-impossible.”

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The agency operates the Commerce facility and has a 1,350-ton-per-day plant under construction in Long Beach. But a project that would handle 10,000 tons per day at the Puente Hills landfill near Whittier, the biggest landfill outside New York, faces a close examination by regulatory officials, and plans for smaller units in South Gate and the South Bay area of Los Angeles County have been suspended.

Later this month the agency’s board of directors will determine the fate of a 1,000-ton-per-day incinerator at the Spadra landfill near the Cal Poly Pomona campus. The proposed project has gotten far along in the regulatory process, but recently became a major target of residents unhappy that more than half of Los Angeles County’s 45,000 tons of trash a day is trucked to San Gabriel Valley landfills.

The Spadra project lost a key supporter recently when county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, in a letter that took note of the controversy, urged the agency to withdraw its plans.

If the Spadra project is killed, as some county sanitation officials suspect, the only live Southern California proposals would be the Long Beach project, a plan to burn tires in the San Bernardino County city of Rialto, and a pair of incinerators planned in San Diego County. But the tire incinerator and the San Diego projects--one near downtown and the other in suburban San Marcos--have become controversial and still need to win approval from local authorities.

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