A Los Angeles Superior Court judge decided Friday to allow the controversial expansion of an Azusa garbage dump, even though it sits atop a vulnerable water supply for much of the San Gabriel Valley.
Judge David P. Yaffe, saying he believes that the county needs more dump space, heard 2 1/2 hours of arguments before ruling that "expansion of existing landfills is a necessity, not an option."
The expansion, which began last fall, allows for 36 million more tons of waste to be brought to the Azusa dump during the landfill's lifetime, quadrupling its capacity. The dump, which now takes in roughly 2,000 tons of garbage a day, is able to receive as much as 6,000 tons a day.
The Azusa dump, now the county's least-active landfill, covers 80 acres of a 302-acre rock quarry near the intersection of the 605 and 210 freeways. It is owned by the Azusa Land Reclamation Co., whose parent company, Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., is the nation's second-largest waste hauler.
Acknowledging that the case posed a dilemma, Yaffe nonetheless said, "The days when we can say we want to protect the purity of our water and ship our garbage to our neighbors are over."
Attorneys for opponents and proponents of the expansion plan agree that the case has statewide as well as local implications.
An underground aquifer rests beneath the landfill. It provides 90% of the water used by 1 million residents of the arid San Gabriel Valley.
The valley's ground-water supply has been known for 10 years to be extensively polluted by solvents and degreasers released by industries and businesses during the last 50 years. The dump has not been linked to this contamination.
Federal environmental officials have declared 180 square miles of the valley a federal Superfund cleanup site, saying it represents one of the worst ground-water pollution problems in the West. If the water supply is further jeopardized, such as by the Azusa dump, water may have to come from elsewhere, including Northern California and Arizona, the dump's opponents say.
Both the State Water Resources Control Board and the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Board had already approved the Azusa dump's expansion plans.
Yaffe said that while no environmental impact study has been done on the expansion plans, he did not consider that necessary because the two state boards had reviewed the project's consequences. A portion of the review focused on whether the dump operator was taking adequate protection to prevent landfill waste from contaminating ground water.
Landfill attorney Alan N. Halkett said the expanded landfill is equipped with an elaborate liner and protective barriers to guard against contamination of the aquifer.
Opponents of the expansion plans included a group so diverse that one attorney observed that they appeared to be "strange bedfellows." Valley water suppliers and agencies teamed up with the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California and the Environmental Defense Fund to take the case to court. In addition, Miller Brewing Co., the March of Dimes and the Forest Preservation Society had spoken out against the expansion.
"Essentially, this is the worst possible place for a landfill," said attorney Burton J. Gindler, who represents valley water agencies. "There are a lot of other places to put the waste."
But Gindler said he is uncertain whether his clients will appeal.
Carl Boronkay, general manager of MWD, said, "I just can't understand how with the crisis we have in water supply that you could jeopardize one of Southern California's most important ground-water basins."
But attorneys for the dump say they believe that the judge took great care in resolving a difficult environmental issue.