Driver John Morozoe looked down from his noisy, loaded garbage truck at an Azusa dump Thursday and shouted a rhetorical question to hundreds of thousands of Los Angeles County residents:
"What are you going to do with your trash now?"
Starting today, with the court-ordered closure of the Azusa landfill, 5,000 tons of county trash each day will be looking for a final resting place other than the old rock quarry south of the 210 Freeway.
The scales at the Azusa Land Reclamation Co. dump recorded their last loads of garbage Thursday, setting off a domino effect as trash haulers sought new places to unload one-tenth of the county's daily trash output of 50,000 tons.
The dump's closure--which may be only temporary--comes after years of intense debate over whether the landfill, owned by a subsidiary of one of the nation's biggest trash companies, Browning-Ferris Industries, threatened the San Gabriel Valley's underground water supply.
After losing a lengthy battle in the courts that attracted statewide interest, the landfill company may no longer accept residential and commercial trash, other than construction and demolition debris.
The State Water Resources Control Board, following a Los Angeles Superior Court order, on Thursday made the closure official by revoking the 302-acre dump's permit to expand beyond the 102 acres now piled high with trash. The dump must undertake environmental studies before its application to reopen will be considered by the board.
Landfill officials responded to the closure by saying they would withdraw most of the $20.5 million they placed in an escrow account in 1989 for state use in cleaning up ground water pollution in the San Gabriel Valley. State officials said there is nothing they can do to prevent that.
Dump officials said they hope to reopen the landfill sometime within the next 18 months to five years.
The controversy was sparked when the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, in 1988, and then the State Water Resources Control Board, in 1989, narrowly approved the dump's expansion plans, triggering outrage from environmentalists and bringing on worry from water officials concerned about the fragile aquifer of the San Gabriel Basin.
"I hope they stay closed forever," said Maxine Leichter, head of the water quality group of the Sierra Club's Angeles Chapter.
"There is no perfect place to put trash, but about the worst you can pick is on top of a water supply."
The landfill sits atop a huge aquifer that suffers from extreme contamination from industrial solvents and degreasing agents. Federal environmental officials in 1984 took the unusual step of putting the entire San Gabriel Basin on its national priority list of Superfund cleanup sites.
Victor Gleason, deputy counsel for the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which has fought the dump expansion, calls the facility a "time bomb."
Azusa landfill officials deny the dump is in any way to blame for the water pollution. "It's very much an emotional issue," said landfill manager Paul Schelstrate. "The fact that we are environmentally safe makes our opposition hard to combat."
Before it closed, the landfill was taking trash from nearly half the cities in the San Gabriel Valley and from as far away as Santa Monica and Gardena.
Trash haulers and city officials said the closure could mean lengthier trips for truck drivers and higher disposal costs.
"It doesn't take an astronaut-genius to figure out that costs are going to go up," said Dennis Katangian, owner of Montebello-based Veteran's Disposal Co. "My 8-year-old can figure it out."
Haulers, he said, may have to double the time and distance it took them to go to Azusa. Commercial trash from the city of Los Angeles now may have to go to Sunshine Canyon, just north of Granada Hills in the San Fernando Valley, or even as far west as Calabasas, he said.
"I'm sure it's going to make it more difficult for everyone, and, I would expect, more expensive," said Monrovia City Manager James Starbird, who met Thursday to discuss the closure with the private company that hauls the city's trash.
In addition, two of the nation's largest landfills--the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts' facility at Puente Hills and the BKK Corp. landfill in West Covina--are expected to take much of the trash that used to go to Azusa.
"We're geared up to handle it, but we've only got so much space," said BKK President Kenneth Kazarian.
At both BKK and Puente Hills--which combined now take about half the county's 50,000 tons a day--trucks have to wait as long as an hour to unload. By regulation, the two landfills are limited in the amount of trash they can accept each day.
WHERE L.A. COUNTY'S TRASH GOES In 1975, there were 16 major landfills in Los Angeles County, taking in a total of 30,000 tons of trash a day. Today, with the closure of the Azusa dump, there are nine landfills handling 50,000 tons a day. Most of the dumps are in the San Fernando Valley or the San Gabriel Valley. There are four privately owned landfills: * BKK Corp., north of the Pomona Freeway in West Covina. * Bradley West, eastern San Fernando Valley. Owned by Waste Management Inc. * Chiquita Canyon, west of Interstate 5 in the Santa Clarita Valley. Owned by Laidlaw Waste Systems. * Sunshine Canyon, north of Granada Hills. Owned by Browning-Ferris Industries. Four of the five public landfills are operated by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts: * Calabasas, in western Los Angeles County, north of the Ventura Freeway. * Puente Hills, southeast of the intersection of the San Gabriel River and Pomona freeways. * Scholl Canyon, Glendale. * Spadra, Pomona. The fifth public site is operated by the city of Los Angeles: * Lopez Canyon, in the hills above Lake View Terrace on the northern rim of the San Fernando Valley.