San Marcos OKs Trash-Burning Energy Plant

Times Staff Writer

The construction of San Diego County's first trash-burning power plant was approved Tuesday by San Marcos voters, who refused to buy opponents' claims of pollution risks and settled on the side of high-tech and millions of dollars of promised revenue for the city.

Construction of the $217-million project will begin within weeks, the plant's developer said, adding that the plant, promised to be the most advanced in the country because of its environmental safeguards, could be operating within 2 1/2 years.

"The people of San Marcos have sent a message across the county, across the state and across the nation about how trash should be dealt with," said Richard Chase, managing director of North County Resource Recovery Associates.

Vote Called History

"This is the first time that I know of where voters in the United States have actually voted for a way to get rid of their trash," said an elated Chase as he was doused with champagne at the group's campaign headquarters. "People before have voted against landfills and against trash plants, but they've never voted for something like this. This is history."

The trash-to-energy plant to be built by NCRRA, a private joint venture, will process virtually all of North County's trash by recycling much of it, burying some of it and burning most of it. The trash will feed boilers to generate enough electricity for 40,000 homes.

The plant had been pitched as the most environmentally sound--and financially lucrative--way of disposing of garbage in a region hard-pressed to continue to bury its trash in landfills.

Voter turnout was 47%.

Jonathan Wiltshire, who has led a four-year battle to block the plant's construction, said Tuesday night that opponents would continue their fight, taking the issue once again to the courts on grounds that the San Marcos City Council skirted some of California's environmental quality laws and because of procedural flaws in the City Council approval process.

He blamed the loss on mobile-home voters who were targeted heavily by campaigners on behalf of the trash plant, and said, "If we would have allowed the voters of Lake San Marcos, Encinitas, Carlsbad and Escondido to vote, they (trash plant proponents) would have lost by such a large margin their knees would have been trembling."

'Not Over Yet'

City Councilwoman Pia Harris, the only council member opposing the plant, said, "If we had another week, it would have been a 200-vote margin the other way. But it's not over yet. I still don't believe the plant will be built because it is not good for San Marcos and not good for North County."

But Chase said he was not overly concerned by the threat of legal challenges. "We've been extraordinarily careful this time around, and so has the city. I'm not concerned at this time, and we will proceed," he said.

San Marcos Mayor Lee Thibadeau said the margin of approval "wasn't as wide as I hoped it would be, primarily because of the kind of poison mail that went out at the last minute. If you're not sure how to vote, you vote no, and that's why the count was so close. But it's the final vote that counts."

"The opponents have promised more lawsuits because apparently they don't believe San Marcos voters know what they're doing," the mayor said. "But I think the courts will look differently now on any legal action because of this vote."

The campaign was the most vitriolic--and expensive--in the city's history, with each side accusing the other of dispensing half-truths about the safety of the plant and the feasibility of alternative ways of disposing trash, and with each side forcing the other to spend tens of thousands of dollars more than it had expected to win voter support.

While final campaign disclosure statements have not yet been filed, it appears possible that more than $100,000 will have been spent on electioneering.

Level of Spending

The level of spending seems stunning, given that the battle opened as a David-and-Goliath affair. A handful of property owners were trying to block the moves of a financially well-heeled corporate partnership, which already had won support from the majority of the San Marcos City Council and county, state and federal health and environmental agencies.

But the opponents found hefty financial support from a handful of large property owners and developers who feared that their investments in the rural region along San Marcos' southern boundary, between Escondido and Carlsbad, would be compromised by the introduction of the plant--a large recycling and trash-burning facility topped by a 300-foot-high emissions stack. According to the most recent financial disclosures, opponents had raised nearly $45,000 to fight Proposition A, most of it from non-San Marcos residents and developers with property interests in the area.

Trash plant proponents, in turn, raised about $46,000 for their campaign, of which about $17,500 was donated by North County Resource Recovery Associates, the partnership wanting to build the facility.

The amount of money raised by the opposition "was obviously a surprise to us, and obviously we had to react to it," said Chase of NCRRA.

The level of campaign financing might not seem so extravagant given the fact that NCRRA had already spent more than $17 million to design and develop the plant and was looking at costs totaling $217 million in construction and financing.

Last-Minute Campaigning

Eleventh-hour campaigning by the opposition included the controversial suggestion that Gov. George Deukmejian was opposed to the trash plant because of its emissions. A mailing by the opponents, which featured the state seal and a generic quote from Deukmejian, told of the governor's concerns about air quality, although in fact Deukmejian had not taken a specific position on Proposition A.

On the other hand, plant opponents were angered that supporters had sent to voters applications for absentee ballots that included the return address of the proponents' campaign headquarters. While the secretary of state's policy opposes the use of a return address for either the proponent or opponent of a particular measure when offering applications for absentee ballots, there is no state law on the issue.

Tuesday's election would not have been held in the first place had it not been for a legal foul-up by the City of San Marcos several years ago. The trash plant was originally approved by a 4-1 council vote in 1985, but opponents who filed several lawsuits contesting the decision won on one suit--that the city failed to consider the environmental impact of a change in the general plan leading up to its ultimate approval of the trash plant.

The appellate court's decision forced NCRRA and the city to once again go through the permit process. This time, unlike the first, the City Council said that it would put the issue to the voters for the ultimate decision. Had the city not overlooked the requisite environmental impact report, and if prompt financing could have been arranged, the plant might well have been built and operating by now.

But both sides insisted that the delay would work to their benefit. Supporters claimed that, in the interim, more has been learned about the technical aspects of safely burning trash and how to deal with some of the risks involved. Supporters also felt that it had become clearer that continued reliance on landfills as the sole way of dealing with trash appears to be more dangerous than ever before realized. Opponents, however, said that more has been learned in the last two years about the dangers of dioxins, a chlorine-based chemical determined to be an animal carcinogen that is synthesized in burning processes.

So in the final campaign weeks leading to Tuesday's election, proponents hammered hard on the safe technology to be employed by the plant, while opponents hit hard on its risks, however slim, and how other alternatives, including recycling and composting, are more appropriate solutions to trash disposal.

The Vote 13 of 13 Precincts Reporting

Prop. A: Should the city's general plan be amended to allow construction of a recycling and trash-burning plant adjacent to the county landfill?

Votes % Yes 2,927 52.0 No 2,698 47.9

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