Getting in the Way of Elsmere Landfill Is Like Spitting on the Flag

As political stories go, the struggle over a proposed city-county trash dump in Elsmere Canyon north of Sylmar is one of the more interesting. An air of intrigue surrounds attempts by powerful public agencies and private interests to strike a mega-deal involving the Elsmere landfill, expansion of existing dumps in the San Fernando Valley and the fate of three other canyons in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Other assets in play include county land sought by developer Ray Watt, Los Angeles city land in Saugus sought by the city of Santa Clarita and recreational improvements at Hansen Dam. You almost need a score card to keep track. And buried in the details are basic questions about how we manage trash.

Fears of a "garbage crisis" have fueled the political drive for new and expanded trash dumps. Certainly no one at high levels of the city and county seems to doubt that more landfills--that's landfills, plural--are urgently needed to keep Los Angeles from drowning in a sea of trash.

But there are lots of people--environmentalists and others--who think stuffing canyons with garbage is a bad thing to do. They believe it should not even be considered unless less destructive alternatives also are aggressively pursued. In their view, officials should not approve new dumps without also administering the strong medicine of mandatory recycling and waste reduction programs--such as taxes on excessive packaging and other kinds of litter. That way, although more canyons will be buried today, in the long run others will be saved.

But such voices are muffled by the political drumbeat from City Hall and the County Hall of Administration. And so it is that the Elsmere dump seems like something of a sacred and single-minded cause. To get in the way is to spit on the flag.

The Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a state agency that acquires parkland, recently found this out the hard way. The conservancy was not put on Earth to help fill canyons with trash, but rather to save them as places for wildlife and people. Still, the conservancy brought upon itself the wrath of the city and county when, in pursuit of that goal, it briefly slowed down the Elsmere juggernaut.

The conservancy, it may be recalled, entered into an unusual marriage of convenience with BKK Corp. that was meant to aid each one's pursuit of vastly different goals.

Like the county and city, BKK thought Elsmere would make a great landfill. But BKK got there first, securing land and options in hopes of running the dump itself. Although BKK rejected an initial buyout offer from the county, it faced condemnation of its holdings if it refused to sell and leave.

The conservancy, meanwhile, wanted to force the county and independent County Sanitation Districts to turn over Mission, Sullivan and Rustic canyons in the Santa Monicas, which were being held as potential sites for future dumps. Making parks of the canyons, the conservancy contended, was the minimum environmental price to be paid for destruction of Elsmere.

Under a secret mutual aid pact, BKK was to donate its Elsmere holdings to the conservancy, in whose hands the lands would be condemnation-proof. And by controlling land the county needed for Elsmere, the conservancy would boost its chances of acquiring the other three canyons.

But the scheme backfired on the conservancy. BKK withdrew from the pact a week ago in response to a tentative buyout offer from the county of $125 million. The conservancy, some critics may argue, achieved little beyond securing a windfall for BKK and raising the cost of a basic public service.

Still, others would argue that the environmental redress the conservancy demanded was less than a bare minimum. In their view, government should be trying to reduce the need for landfills--not merely to offset their destructiveness by dedicating parks.

For all the political turmoil over landfills, they really are a kind of magic bullet, a way to fend off the day of reckoning over waste of natural resources. By sacrificing one canyon and neighborhood at a time, the unappealing task of seeking basic change can be postponed indefinitely. Pushing business and the public to surrender a little convenience carries political risks.

Los Angeles officials were talking about a citywide curbside recycling program five years ago. They have yet to bring it off. In this town, recycling is still more an activity for the homeless than a basic responsibility.

The looming "garbage crisis" did not produce strong recycling and waste reduction programs. And with approval of Elsmere and expansion of the Sunshine and Lopez canyon landfills, the pressure will be off. It may well be business as usual.

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