Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation officials ignored the advice of regional air quality engineers when they installed what has turned out to be an inadequate system to control noxious gas emissions at the Lopez Canyon Landfill, hearings before regional air quality officials have revealed.
The city has spent more than $4 million trying to control the gas since Aug. 2, 1989, but there are still areas in the city's only public trash dump at which methane gas emissions measure 10,000 parts per million--20 times greater than state law allows.
In April, the hearing board of the South Coast Air Quality Management District began looking into alleged excess gas emissions at the northeast San Fernando Valley dump. The hearings came in the wake of complaints by neighbors and their elected officials that the city sanitation bureau had not obeyed the board's 1989 order to control the emissions. Residents complained of foul odors coming from the dump and contended that landfill fumes have caused illnesses and other problems.
At the first hearing on April 27, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), Councilman Ernani Bernardi and residents of Kagel Canyon and Lake View Terrace asked the hearing board, the AQMD's enforcement arm, to close the landfill.
"The city is committing a crime by allowing gas emissions 20 times the legal limit," Katz told the hearing board. "This board cannot allow the city to make a mockery of the laws intended to safeguard the public's health."
Since then, the hearing board has devoted one or two days during most weeks to the Lopez Canyon Landfill hearings. The AQMD proceedings were to have been concluded before an Aug. 21 Planning Commission hearing on the sanitation bureau's application to expand the landfill. But it appears now that the hearings may continue into September.
In three days of testimony, Ed Ostrowski, the bureau's chief engineer, testified that the city has installed a flare system and 165 wells--122 more than originally planned--to collect and burn off the gas. More wells are planned, he said. The system works by drawing gas emissions out of the garbage in the wells and then burning it off in the so-called "flare system" connected to the wells.
Ostrowski admitted that in designing the gas collection system, he and consultant Bryan Stirrat ignored the advice of AQMD engineers when they installed the initial 43 wells.
Even though the permit the bureau obtained from the AQMD to build the first wells specified that they be deep wells--wells that go down 100 feet or more into the ground--the sanitation bureau installed so-called shallow wells instead, Ostrowski said.
When asked why, he said he does not believe in the concept of deep wells.
Deep wells, Ostrowski said, are "extremely expensive and don't last very long." He said he and Stirrat based their decision not to install the deep wells on Stirrat's experience with other landfills and on data from other landfills.
Outside of Browning-Ferris Industries, which operates Sunshine Canyon Landfill above Granada Hills, Ostrowski said he knows of no one besides AQMD engineers who now recommends the use of deep wells to control landfill gas emissions.
Although AQMD records show that the bureau's permit specified that the initial 43 wells should be deep wells of 100 feet or more, failing to follow the specifications does not constitute a punishable violation, according to authorities.
Ostrowski said the permit that specified 100-foot deep wells was "written incorrectly. It is in error because it doesn't describe what we proposed to do."
AQMD engineers would not comment on their recommendation because they have not yet testified at the hearings. But one AQMD official said that deep wells at Sunshine Canyon Landfill controlled emissions there within three months.
Bureau engineers met with AQMD engineers to advise them of their plans during all phases of the system's installation, Ostrowski said.
He testified that after the flare system was operational, the bureau installed 90 wells that were about 50 feet deep. Eventually, he said, 18 deep wells were installed. "We believed that the deep wells were not needed but we dug them anyway because of the AQMD engineering staff," Ostrowski said.
He testified that the gas collection system will eventually control emissions at the landfill. Only a few "hot spots" measuring 10,000 p.p.m. or above remain, he said.
Ostrowski said that the gas collection system needs adjusting and fine-tuning and that even more wells need to be installed before all areas of the landfill comply with the law. Controlling landfill gas is an inexact science, he said.
Monitoring shows that overall methane emissions are decreasing and the system already has stopped any odors in the surrounding neighborhoods, Ostrowski said.
"I'm surprised we're not doing better," he said.
Landfill critics dispute Ostrowski's conclusions. Kagel Canyon resident Dennis Ghiatis, who has attended most of the hearings, said odors from the dump normally lessen during summer months.
Ghiatis and other landfill critics maintain the system is not working because, among other reasons, the sanitation bureau rushed its installation in an attempt to placate the AQMD.
"Lopez is a mess," said Rob Zapple, a Kagel Canyon resident who has led the fight against the landfill. "They haven't done anything the way they should have. In the beginning, there was no talk of a need to give the system time to adjust."
Hearing board members questioned Ostrowski extensively on gas monitoring data presented as evidence.
At least one report to the AQMD signed by Delwin A. Biagi, sanitation bureau director, stated that there were no violations of the 500 p.p.m. limitation, board member Esther Lewin pointed out last Friday.
Ostrowski said he had prepared the report for Biagi's signature and that particular statement referred to only one portion of the landfill.
Board member Mark Abramowitz noted that corrective actions taken to remedy violations were missing from the reports in some instances. He asked the city to prepare a list of the remedial actions taken after excess gas emissions were discovered at various locations.
During one heated exchange between Assistant City Atty. Christopher Westhoff and Abramowitz on Friday, Abramowitz said that he sees evidence of a major cover-up on the city's part. He cited the missing data, along with the Biagi report.
"There's no cover-up," Westhoff said angrily after the hearing.
Ostrowski questioned whether "we're being held to a higher standard than other landfills."
Westhoff said Bureau of Sanitation officials would send a letter to the AQMD on Monday asking what actions the hearing board has taken at other landfills that violate state laws governing gas emissions.
"Are they being held up to such scrutiny?" he asked.
Just what action the hearing board will take in the Lopez Canyon case remains unclear. Board members will not discuss the case until the hearings are over. If the hearing board orders the landfill closed, the city is expected to fight the action in court.
"These hearings have just gotten out of hand," Westhoff said.
However, Zapple and other landfill opponents, who previously criticized the hearings for taking so long, said they were encouraged by the board's careful examination of the monitoring reports and of the city's gas collection system installation procedures.
"It looks like we're finally getting results," Zapple said.