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San Marcos Wants to Operate Own Trash Plant

Times Staff Writer

San Marcos city officials, saying they are frustrated that a trash-to-energy plant has not yet been approved by the county for construction in their city, are investigating the possibility of developing their own landfill on which to build their own trash plant.

Mayor Lee Thibadeau proposes that the city operate its own trash-processing plan for its own residents--and let the county look elsewhere to build a regional recycling and trash-burning plant.

“We’re fed up. We’ve cooperated (with the county), and we’ve waited and we’ve worked with them, and still there is a lack of negotiations” between the county and the would-be trash plant builder, Thibadeau said.

“We’ve been taking care of the entire region’s trash problems, and now it’s time we protect the San Marcos voters, the guys who are paying my wages,” he said.

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By a 4-1 vote Tuesday night, the San Marcos City Council approved several Thibadeau proposals which, the mayor said, could force the county to abandon its own landfill and pave the way for San Marcos to enter the trash business. The city staff was instructed to report back its initial findings and reaction to the mayor’s proposal at a City Council meeting Wednesday night.

County officials say they don’t believe Thibadeau’s proposal holds much merit, either for his own city or for the county as a whole. And the company that Thibadeau would have build a trash plant for the city’s own use says it is still committed to working with the county for a regional trash plant.

But Thibadeau said he has done enough initial investigation to give him the confidence that his idea is worth pursuing. The only council member to object was Pia Harris, who has steadfastly opposed a trash-burning power plant in her city.

Among the mayor’s requests were that:

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- The city’s attorney investigate whether the county has violated the city’s special-use permit, which governs the landfill site, and consider a number of remedies--including revoking the permit allowing the landfill in the first place.

Thibadeau said he believes the county has allowed the land filling to occur to a height higher than the city allowed and has expanded the boundaries of the landfill to exceed the original boundaries.

- The city consider condemning the landfill itself, in order to allow the city to take over its operations.

- The city negotiate with neighboring landowners to buy land adjoining the existing landfill for the city to develop as its own burial ground for trash.

- The city begin negotiations with Thermo Electron Corp., which hopes to build and operate a $250-million, trash-to-energy plant at the San Marcos landfill on behalf of the county, to build a smaller plant for the exclusive use of San Marcos and any other cities that might contract directly with San Marcos.

“I have verified to the extent I’ve needed to in the past few months that the county of San Diego is in direct violation of certain provisions of the special-use permit they’re operating under,” Thibadeau said. “They have exceeded the height limitation of the fill-in area, and the boundaries have exceeded what was originally drawn up. Furthermore, I suspect they might be infringing on an archeological site.”

Thibadeau contends that the county has knowingly exceeded the limits and did so because, if the landfill were maintained within the established limits, it already would be full, forcing the county to send trash to more distant landfills.

He said he doesn’t hold much hope that the city could condemn the landfill and bring it under city ownership because the same criteria the city would use--issues of public safety and welfare--could be argued by the county in retaining ownership.

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Special-Use Permit

There is more likelihood, Thibadeau said, that the county will be found in violation of the city’s special-use permit to operate the trash plant.

Still, he acknowledges, if the city were to attempt to revoke the permit, the county would probably respond with legal action that would at least allow it to operate the landfill until the matter is resolved in court.

Despite the hurdles, legally and logistically, of turning the county out of San Marcos, Thibadeau said the time has come to pursue it as an option.

“In 1989, the county will bring over 1.3 million tons of trash into San Marcos. Almost 50% of that comes from Carlsbad, Escondido and Encinitas--the very cities that are suing us for attempting to solve the county’s long-range solid-waste problems by building the trash plant,” Thibadeau said.

“But our city only produces 43,000 tons of trash a year. Every 12 days we allow the county to continue operating the landfill, they are costing us a year of space that would otherwise be available to us.”

The landfill is expected to reach capacity in 1991, and county officials say they would need to expand the landfill in order to serve the proposed trash plant, which would recycle some of North County’s trash, burn much of it and bury the rest--including the resulting ash.

San Marcos officials--supported by a public, citywide vote--already have approved the construction of the plant, which would generate millions of dollars more for the city. But the plant would operate under contract with the county, and it is that contract that must still be negotiated between the Board of Supervisors and Thermo Electron.

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April Beginning

The negotiations are expected to begin in April, both parties say.

Barry Welch, the project manager for Thermo Electron, said he doesn’t want to speculate on the possibility that his company could build a smaller version of the plant for San Marcos’ exclusive use.

“Our position is that we are presently on track and absolutely committed to the negotiations with the county on our service agreement, period. We have not had discussions with the city on their proposal,” Welch said.

“It would be speculation to say whether their proposal makes sense,” he said. “For the time being, we’ll buckle down and get our negotiations done with the county. It would certainly be better for everybody involved if we were to run down the road we’ve been running down and come to the finish line with a plant that would serve everybody.

“I understand the feelings of impatience by a city that has supported this project all along and which sees a landfill filling up while time marches on,” Welch said.

Roger Walsh, the county’s deputy director of public works, said Thibadeau’s contention that the county has overstepped its bounds at the landfill was news to him.

“We have not knowingly or unknowingly operated outside the conditions of the use permit,” he said. “We will review the suggestion that we have. We have a fairly good aerial mapping system, and we’ll review it. In the event we are (in violation), we’ll meet with the city and try to resolve any difficulties we have.”

Walsh said he will meet with the staff of county counsel today to discuss whether San Marcos has any legal grounds to revoke the county’s permit to operate the landfill.

Can’t Support Notion

But philosophically, Walsh said he cannot support San Marcos’ notion to go out on its own in the trash business.

“The county has the responsibility for solid-waste management planning. We operate the landfills which serve all the cities except San Diego, and all the unincorporated area, and we will continue to serve them,” Walsh said. “We feel we already have a binding contract with Thermo Electron to build and operate the facility, and all we are negotiating at this time is a major modification of it.”

Rick Anthony, a solid-waste program manager for the county, said he doesn’t think San Marcos is willing or capable of backing the trash plant on its own.

“Are they willing to put up their general fund to back the plant’s operation? Are they ready to take responsibility for a landfill, and deal with all the state regulations on garbage?” said Anthony.

“The county is willing to do those things because the county is the lead agency for solid-waste disposal for the entire county, and we share that obligation with everybody in the county,” he said.

County supervisors in January authorized its staff to open negotiations with Thermo Electron and set a 60-day deadline to complete the talks. But those talks have not yet begun, Walsh said, because the county has had to hire consultants to advise it on the negotiations.

The trash plant also is targeted in a number of still-unresolved lawsuits by opponents on a variety of environmental and procedural grounds.


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