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Delay Leaves Foes of Trash Sites Wondering

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The county Board of Supervisor’s decision last week to order further studies of possible landfill sites in Fallbrook and Pala has left a host of opponents unsure as to whether they should sigh in relief or brace for tougher battles ahead.

Among those with a vested interest in the outcome are the Marine Corps and the County Water Authority, both of which are concerned about contamination of the ground water by garbage toxins leaching into the earth.

On the one hand, supervisors on Tuesday refused to order general plan amendments for the two sites, deciding instead to reconsider that decision two years from now, when more extensive environmental studies are completed for a major-use permit.

And in what may be even more telling about the board’s hesitancy to adopt the two sites, it ordered new studies to find smaller landfill sites closer to North County’s urban centers.

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On the other hand, it didn’t immediately reject the Fallbrook and Pala sites, either--despite a barrage of testimony from a variety of speakers--some of them boasting professional credentials--that the two sites were fraught with environmental pitfalls.

“I don’t know whether we won or lost. I guess the game is in overtime,” remarked Gordon Tinker, general manager of the Fallbrook Public Utility District and a leading critic of the Aspen Road landfill site in Fallbrook.

Tinker speculated that the county decided not to approve the land use zoning amendment because that would have required adoption of the controversial environmental impact report. Had it done that, he said, lawsuits were sure to fly, contesting the legality of the EIR, which has been accused of having flaws, omissions and other shortcomings.

Others had argued that the county was wrong to consider a two-step EIR process in the first place--one for the general plan amendment, and another for the actual major use permit. Those critics said a single, all-encompassing environmental impact report should have been prepared on the potential landfills, even before the general plan amendment was considered.

Now, public agencies that had voiced strong objections to the landfill sites are preparing for the second round of the landfill siting battle.

Among those considering their options is the Marine Corps, which had lobbied strongly against the Fallbrook site because of the ground-water pollution concern. The Aspen Road site is alongside Rainbow Creek, which feeds into the Santa Margarita River and its underground water basin. That aquifer, in turn, provides the self-contained Marine base with 70% of its water.

The Marines are worried that, despite the best intentions of engineers and the use of a polyethylene liner to contain garbage toxins, hazardous waste could still seep into the ground water, jeopardizing the base’s primary source of water.

“This gives us time to continue fighting,” said Lt. Col. John Lasher, the community planning officer at Camp Pendleton.

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Lasher and Lt. Col. Paul Smith, a Marine Corps attorney, noted that the Marines don’t have outright power to stop the landfill since they are only considered downstream neighbors to it. By contrast, county supervisors rejected a third landfill site, at Blue Canyon near Warner Springs, because it was owned by the federal Bureau of Land Management and it wouldn’t give up the land for the dump.

So the Marine Corps is trying to make its point through the power of persuasion. Two weeks ago, Brig. Gen. Mike Neil fired off a letter to North County Supervisor John MacDonald, a copy of which was obtained by The Times.

“I feel that the board does not fully appreciate the national-defense and public-health implications of a landfill within the watershed of the Santa Margarita River,” Neil wrote MacDonald.

“We are not unmindful of the critical need to find additional landfill space for northern San Diego County. But such a decision must be based on sound public policy and valid scientific assumptions.

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“Virtually every public agency that reviewed the environmental documentation supporting the siting decision has found it to be inadequate,” wrote Neil, an attorney and reservist who is now temporarily serving as the commanding general of the base. “To base a decision which could have such catastrophic results on information known to be faulty or insufficient invites costly and protracted litigation.”

Wrote Neil, “A landfill at Aspen Road simply cannot be tolerated. The risk to Camp Pendleton’s national-defense mission and to the health of its 50,000 residents is too high.”

But, despite the brigadier general’s plea, MacDonald on Tuesday didn’t vote to reject the Aspen Road site, saying more study was needed.

The Marines are now deciding what to do next.

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“The folks at headquarters are closely monitoring the situation,” said Smith. “How we’ll react (to Tuesday’s action) . . . well, we’re still thinking about that.”

The County Water Authority is watching closely, too, because 76% of the water that comes to San Diego County by aqueduct goes alongside either the Fallbrook or Pala sites, said Byron Buck, director of water resources planning for the agency.

“There’s probably no site in San Diego County that presents zero risk to water resources,” he said. “But these two sites have very high risks, and we think there are better sites.”

He noted that the two aquifers are among the most valuable in San Diego County, given the quality of the water and how they are relied on by the Marine Corps and residents in the San Luis Rey River valley.

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The water authority’s concern about the Gregory Canyon site at Pala is that, if the aqueduct should burst, a torrent of flooding water would wash over the garbage dump and into the San Luis Rey River.

Moreover, the water agency is thinking of using the river’s ground water basin as a huge, underground water storage reservoir, and is concerned that garbage toxins from the landfill could poison that very water.

At Fallbrook, the worry is that, with the mountain of trash along Aspen Road, an earthquake could cause a significant land shift that would then burst the buried aqueduct, Buck said.

But, like the Marine Corps, the County Water Authority has only persuasion to wield on supervisors.

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One agency that could eventually put the brakes on landfill construction is the San Diego County Regional Water Quality Control Board, which is charged by state law with protecting ground-water quality.

Already, directors of that agency have expressed strong concern that the sites are situated next to aquifers, and they have promised--or threatened--to give the landfills close scrutiny when the permission process moves to them.

The water quality board is assigned to apply state law to local water issues--such as what requirements would be placed on the county before a landfill is permitted, said Bob Morris, a senior water resource control engineer.

“It could take the staff at least a year to review all the technical information necessary to assess potential impacts on water,” Morris said.

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Nothing in state law, he said, prohibits the siting of a non-hazardous landfill above a ground-water basin. The law simply demands separation between the bottom of the landfill and the ground water below it.

But, if the technical staff is not convinced, given the geology of a particular site, that the separation between garbage and ground water can be preserved, it can refuse to allow the landfill.

Other agencies that will eventually review the landfill decision are the state Department of Fish and Game and the federal Fish and Wildlife Service, which are concerned about the loss of habitat and could order replacement habitats for those lost to the landfill.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will review the Gregory Canyon landfill site to make sure it doesn’t affect the flow of the San Luis Rey River, said Jim Crum, a project manager for the corps. If technicians find it would have too great an impact on the river, it could unilaterally block the project as a violation of the federal Clean Water Act.

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The state’s Integrated Waste Management Board must eventually bless the operation of the landfill by assuring that environmental issues have been addressed and resolved, said spokesman Chris Peck.

But the board does not intervene in the initial local land-use decision of where to put the landfill, Peck said.

For now, many opponents of the two landfill sites are pleased that the Board of Supervisors also ordered its staff to look for and study one or two more potential landfill sites, smaller than the ones under active consideration and closer to North County’s urban centers.

One possible site, which previously had been rejected by the county’s staff, is north of Deer Springs Road and west of Interstate 15, opposite the Lawrence Welk Resort.

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The framework for that study will be discussed by the board in about three months.

Said Tinker, Fallbrook Public Utility District general manager, of that new study: “I’d assume the public will have the opportunity to provide comments at that point, if the county staff is not headed in the direction we think they should be. We’ll be a watchdog, to make sure it’s a fair and comparative evaluation.”

Meanwhile, Tinker speculated, property owners neighboring the Fallbrook site may feel free to build homes there, since the land-use zoning has not yet been changed.

“Nobody’s legally constrained now from building houses there. And, if enough are built in the next few years, that will seriously aggravate the county’s economics” because the county would then eventually have to purchase those homes through condemnation, Tinker said.

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“But the biggest frustration,” he said, “is that there’s still a cloud over people’s heads.”


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