Layers and Layers of Dilemma : Officials Dig In for Long Haul of Trash Problems

Times Staff Writer

Near the mouth of the Santa Clara River in Oxnard, where scrub brush clings and wild things creep, a strapping entrepreneur named Willis (Bill) R. Bailard once strode the sandy soil, thinking of lemons.

The year was 1933, and Bailard dreamed of crowning a citrus king in Ventura County. He envisioned million-dollar harvests year-round, a ceaseless parade of colorful packing crates speeding their aromatic cargo to sun-starved Northern towns.

Suffice it to say that, when Bailard surveyed those Oxnard grounds half a century ago, he did not envision a mountain of garbage, or the municipal squabbling over the landfill that would one day rise from the site and bear his name.

Bailard was a rancher from a pioneering Santa Barbara farming family who joked in Spanish with field hands and called himself senor sin pelo --the man without hair--to poke fun at a bald spot on his head.

In the early 1930s, armed with a business degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a decade of work experience here and abroad, Bailard returned to his hometown and soon hatched a plan to open the wallets of wealthy investors: He would scout out good lemon-growing lands in Ventura County, plant and harvest the crop, and process it for market. Investors would provide the capital in return for 80% of the profit.

Bailard planned to work the citrus groves for 30 to 40 years until development from Ventura and Oxnard began to encroach from either side.

Business blossomed, and in 1940, Bailard and his partners founded the Ventura Coastal Lemon Corp., known today as Ventura Coastal Corp.

The only open land Bailard could not plant lay near the Santa Clara River, on low-lying soil that sometimes flooded during winter storms.

In the early 1960s, Bailard hit on what everyone thought would be a clever use for the unplanted lowlands. His plan would shore up the area from river flooding and bring in some extra money.

Bailard decided to open a dump.

As a kid, Gary Haden of Ventura used to hang out at the county dumps.

"We'd take .22s down there and shoot at sea gulls and rats," Haden recalled. When the dump operator spotted them, the kids would run away, scrambling gleefully out of trash bins and over mountains of refuse to safety.

Today, "I'm the guy who has to go chase the kids off," said Haden, 39, superintendent of solid-waste operations at Coastal Landfill and the now-closed Bailard landfill in Oxnard. "It's a little bit like the Twilight Zone."

Coastal, which handles trash from Ventura, Ojai, Oxnard, Port Hueneme and Camarillo, is the only big dump open in west Ventura County. When Coastal reaches capacity--perhaps as soon as March--the county wants to reopen Bailard, which lies next door.

In 1962, W. R. Bailard did succeed in turning his low-lying farmlands near the Santa Clara River into a dump. He leased the site to a private operator, who ran Bailard until 1975, when it was shut down because of environmental violations.

W. R. died in 1981 at the age of 79.

Today, Haden works out of a trailer on the Bailard property, a flat stretch of land covered with hard-packed dirt. The area around the dumps remains agricultural, although flowers and green vegetables have replaced the citrus.

Haden's scavenging days are long over, since health and safety laws now prohibit people from rooting around at the landfill. But the dump manager, a genial, bearded fellow whose attire runs to work boots, blue jeans and a leather jacket, has not lost his fascination with trash. He calls himself the "guru" of the dumps.

"Going through trash is like snooping or reading somebody's diary. It's something that anthropologists do to find out more about people. It's like a time vault, a treasure hunt.

"Once, when I was young," he confided, "I found a brass bed."

Nobody writes odes to municipal dumps, but Coastal Landfill does evoke at least one artistic reference--to Dante's Inferno.

At Gonzales Road and Victoria Avenue, Coastal sprawls across 70 acres, and at its highest peak, rises 90 feet, almost 10 stories high, with layered trash and dirt. Each morning, engineers designate a 200-foot-wide "open face" where that day's 8 million pounds of trash, the equivalent of about 60,000 trash barrels, will be dumped.

The rest of the site remains covered with a 12-inch layer of dirt to satisfy the health code. It would resemble a freshly plowed hill if not for the stench of decaying organic matter and the occasional rusty tin can, orange peel or plastic bag that pokes through the dirt.

On the open face, yellow tractors splattered with dried mud careen up hills, grinding down soil, pillows and dog-eared phone books. The 8-foot high tires compact the trash and squish everything together "like a fruitcake," Haden said. Walking here is like treading on wet sand: The ground sinks underfoot.

Above the dump, thousands of shrieking sea gulls circle, swooping down occasionally to sample the rotting smorgasbord. Workers wear hard hats, as much for protection against the birds as to deflect any stray bit of flying trash churned up by the earthmovers.

Across the face of the dump, shabbily dressed men carting plastic trash bags swarm like ants, scavenging for flotsam and jetsam that the wind blows away before it can be covered with dirt. Their faces puckered into permanent grimaces, these are paid scavengers--about 10 in all--who keep the dump free of litter. Their job is among the lowest on the landfill totem pole.

At regular intervals along the site, skinny white poles jut 20 feet into the air, and already extend 20 feet down. Trucks dump trash until the debris reaches the top of the poles. At that point, the dumpsters move on to the next square mapped out by the engineers.

Haden rarely allows people to ferret through the trash. A construction firm that inadvertently threw out all its payroll records received permission to come out and look for them, to no avail.

"About three times a year, the police come out looking for weapons" that suspects may have discarded in the trash, Haden said.

Since the dump keeps records of where trash gets dumped, Haden can usually lead foragers to within 80 feet of their quarry.

High up on the hill, with the ocean stretching below him and the sun shining above, Haden looked like a ruler surveying his kingdom. But some dark spots mar the view and cloud the future.

Bushes at the landfill's edge have turned brown from the methane gas emitted as dump debris decomposes. But the pollution wafting from decades of garbage might claim more than a few shrubs; some engineers and environmentalists fear a witch's brew of contaminants may one day seep into the underground streams that supply drinking water to thousands of residents.

At 223 acres, Bailard is three times the size of its neighbor, the Coastal Landfill. But if Coastal is a teeming, hillside scene from an Italian poet's version of Hell, then Bailard is the opposite: a flat, barren ghost of a dump that has seen no new trash since 1975, when its owners shut it down rather than make improvements estimated at costing $2 million.

But the Ventura Regional Sanitation District and county officials have pinned all their hopes on Bailard. The county's solid-waste engineers want to build a 50-foot trash hill on the now-level site, compress it down to 35 feet, then cover it with a clay cap so that water cannot percolate through the trash and into several underground water sources that lie under the dump.

Evidence, however, shows that pollutants from the dump have already invaded a shallow aquifer that starts 15 feet below ground level and is not used for drinking water. Samples from this aquifer show a higher-than-normal concentration of benzene--a toxic chemical that scientists say leached down from the dump.

Sometime between 1962 and 1975, Bailard's operators dug below the water table and into the shallow aquifer. Today, trash from Bailard lies in about a foot of water, and trash engineers say the landfill "has wet feet."

The dump itself contains more than just garden-variety municipal waste. After a 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill spewed more than 235,000 gallons of crude oil onto local beaches, cleanup crews sopped up the mess with straw and obtained a county permit to dump the resulting debris at Bailard, said Stacy H. Dobrzensky, Bailard's former attorney.

In the early 1970s, Bailard ran afoul of county laws regulating landfills. Water pooled on the site, and the property lacked a fence to keep out scavengers, as required by law. The county asked Bailard to build a levee that would dam river waters in case of flooding.

In 1978, the Ventura Regional Sanitation District proposed to properly shut down Bailard in exchange for permission to use it free as a municipal dump for some years. Meanwhile, the district spent $2 million to build a levee, fence the property and cover it with a layer of soil.

But the district has yet to obtain permission to reopen the site, and until it does, Bailard is fated to remain a desolate spot, and the county, to grapple with the seemingly insoluble problem of finding a hole deep enough and safe enough for the garbage of more than a quarter of a million residents.

If one were to voyage down into the Bailard Landfill a la Jules Verne, one would descend past 15 feet of trash that encapsulate the years 1962 to 1975. It is probable that among those layers is a mulch of newspapers chronicling the fall of Saigon, Nixon-Agnew campaign buttons, thong bathing suits, hippie love beads, early Beatles records and Life magazines that mourn President Kennedy's assassination.

The bottom foot of the Bailard trash invades the "semi-perched aquifer," an underground water current 80 feet deep that seeps through sand and gravel at the rate of 2 feet per day. Although this shallow aquifer is designated as a potential municipal water source, engineers say that chemicals from fertilizers and dump debris have oozed into the aquifer over the years, making it unfit for drinking or irrigating crops.

Descending farther, the intrepid traveler would plunge through 50 feet of sand, silt and clay and finally, at a depth of 180 feet, to a deeper water source called the Oxnard Aquifer.

Unlike its shallow cousin, the Oxnard Aquifer provides drinking water to west Ventura County residents. Wells pump the water to the surface.

Some county engineers fear that piling more trash on the Bailard site might squeeze trash at the bottom and cause liquid and pollutants to leach into the Oxnard Aquifer. Another unknown is whether a sustained drought could create an artesian effect, forcing water upward and exposing it to contamination. But tests show that the aquifer remains free of pollutants--at least for now.

Each of the five supervisors in Ventura County stakes out a claim to certain big issues, such as child care or mental health. Supervisor John Flynn, who represents Oxnard, has made it his business to learn about water quality.

In November, Flynn rallied a number of his constituents to attend a hearing at which the state water board was to discuss reopening the Bailard site.

Those attending included environmentalists, scientists, nearby homeowners, developers, city and county officials, and even representatives from groups such as the NAACP and the Mexican-American Political Assn.

Most of them, including Flynn, raised concerns that reopening Bailard for a long time might pose a hazard to underground water supplies.

Those who could not attend wrote letters. For example, Martin V. Smith, an Oxnard developer, wrote that he supported reopening Bailard only if it were to close after two years. "Its location is a hindrance to the city in potential water contamination and exposure to our citizens," Smith wrote.

The water board weighed these comments and decided that if the permit to reopen Bailard should be granted only for several years, perhaps it should not be granted at all.

The board ordered its staff to draw up a report rescinding Bailard's operating permit and scheduled a final vote for Jan. 25. The decision was unexpected, and it plunged county administrators into chaos. With Coastal due to close as early as March and no timely alternative in sight, the west county was in a real pickle--and some blamed John Flynn.

Among them was Les Maland, executive director of the Regional Sanitation District, who claimed at one board meeting that Flynn had "manipulated politically" at the district's expense.

In anticipation that trash from the west county would have to be trucked to the Simi Landfill or the Tolland Road Landfill, the county's two other dumps, the board is looking into almost doubling tipping fees (the rate that waste haulers pay to dump trash). This might raise the average resident's trash fees 25%.

Since that turbulent November meeting, district and county officials have resolved their differences and vow to present a united front at the water board hearing. Flynn no longer speaks out about water quality, and both parties say they want technical experts to testify Jan. 25, not politicians.

Those experts are expected to testify that reopening Bailard will pose no threat to the environment or to water quality. Whether they succeed in convincing the water board remains to be seen.

Although the Bailard Landfill still commands center stage, the trash debate will soon shift from the ocean to the mountains as county residents grapple with the endless dilemma of where to dispose of their waste.

The latest proposal is to build a landfill in Weldon Canyon, at the mouth of the Ojai Valley.

Waste Management Inc., the nation's largest disposal firm, has already negotiated a lease option from the property's private owner to operate the site as a landfill.

But Weldon's opening is far from certain, as the proposal requires lengthy environmental and government approvals that are at least five years away.

In addition, some Ojai residents and environmentalists already decry the idea of a landfill at Weldon Canyon, saying that the hundreds of truck trips required daily would further pollute the Ojai Valley's air. There is also some concern that chemicals from the trash might leak and contaminate the pristine canyon land that surrounds Weldon.

Towering eucalyptus trees line the road to Weldon Canyon, and the sun casts dappled shadows on Rancho Canada Larga (The Ranch of the Big Canyon), a sprawling hacienda that guards the entrance to the site.

Beyond are undulating, emerald-green hills that look as if prize Holsteins should be grazing there and in the grassy canyon below.

Instead, county officials are deciding whether to fill it with orange peels, old tires, rusty tin cans and computer paper--the detritus of modern life.

In 1962, W. R. Bailard decided to open a landfill near a river's edge.

Today, sanitation and county officials are deciding whether to open a landfill in an untouched canyon guarded by a chain-link fence with signs that warn "Private Property, Keep Out" and "No Hunting or Trespassing."

Nowhere does it say "No Dumping."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
69°