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County Searches for Solution to Landfill Crisis : Trash: Court ruling that delayed plans to expand San Marcos landfill has public officials groping for alternatives.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So this is the severity of the North County landfill crisis:

A top San Diego County bureaucrat on Friday asked a gathering of North County city officials to call him over the weekend-- here’s my home number-- if they have any answers.

The Board of Supervisors next week will try to figure out what to do with North County’s trash after its San Marcos landfill is filled, but its staff may not have any strong recommendations to make by then, conceded Roger Walsh, assistant director of the county’s Department of Public Works.

The problem erupted last week when a San Diego Superior Court judge tossed out an environmental impact report that was supposed to justify the expansion of the landfill. The county had planned to pile another 200 feet of garbage atop the existing 750 feet.

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The environmental impact report, said Judge Judith McConnell, was flawed because, among other things, the county’s environmental consultant failed to discuss the environmental consequences in using a clay liner to separate the existing landfill with its new second story.

Without a valid EIR, the expansion can’t go forward, throwing the county into a tizzy because it has no simple alternative for storing the trash when the landfill is filled. Each weekday, North County produces enough trash to fill about 300 or so garbage trucks, officials estimate.

Although there are some possible solutions, each requires either more environmental impact reports or permits from one government agency or another--and none can be attained before the landfill reaches capacity in September, Walsh said.

“Everything we could do has a checkmate,” said Walsh after meeting for 2 1/2 hours with representatives of North County cities who have formed a coalition to try to help resolve the region’s trash crisis.

Leading the search for a solution is a team of four attorneys from the county counsel’s office, assigned the problem because it was prompted by a lawsuit. “Every possible answer has legal consequences,” said Deborah Castillo, spokeswoman for the Public Works Department.

Her own department is brainstorming for solutions, too, and has met with county trash haulers, city officials and others, she said.

Among the options outlined Friday by Walsh and others:

* Ask the judge to reconsider her ruling, or appeal it.

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* Correct the EIR--a six-to-nine-month process--and, in the meantime, keep the San Marcos Landfill open even after it legally reaches capacity, which now is expected to be sometime in September. Earlier, officials thought it would be filled up by July or August, but the latest aerial photographs show it has a few more feet of capacity.

County officials aren’t sure, though, whether the county itself can unilaterally declare a public health emergency that would allow the landfill to remain open beyond its existing capacity, or whether it would require state legislative action or a proclamation by Gov. Pete Wilson.

* Transport North County’s trash to the county’s Sycamore landfill, off Mission Gorge Road west of Santee, or somewhere outside the county altogether.

But, even though the Sycamore landfill is within the county’s system of solid waste management, permits would be needed to allow more trash to be dumped there than its current daily limit, and an environmental impact report--already being prepared--is needed to discuss the consequences of trucking trash there.

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* If trash should be shipped to Sycamore, should the garbage haulers’ own trucks make the costly and time-consuming run, or should so-called transfer stations be established, perhaps in San Marcos, Vista or Carlsbad, where the individual trucks’ loads are transferred to mega-trucks for the run to Sycamore?

* If transfer stations are quickly constructed to ship trash to Sycamore, or the individual trash carriers do the job, should the increased costs be absorbed by North County residents or by the county, which would reimburse itself later by increasing garbage dumping fees countywide?

“Every option available is being worked on,” Walsh told North County city officials Friday. “And anything you can add here today, we’ll take back” and consider.

The problem frustrated some elected officials.

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“This is hot news, but it’s not new news,” Oceanside City Council member Melba Bishop said of the crisis. “We’ve known for 12 years that the landfill would someday close. Where are the contingencies? It seems to me that, if we’ve known this long, there would have been some plans. This is criminal. It seems the do-nothing scenario is the one the county has adopted.”

Castillo said afterward that the county wouldn’t be in a pickle had the EIR been approved.

Some of Friday’s discussion reflected the unknown questions still facing the county. If the San Marcos landfill reaches capacity and is closed for now, until an EIR is approved, would state permitting agencies be willing to reopen it? “Getting it opened again would be an even bigger mountain to climb than just expanding it,” Escondido Mayor Jerry Harmon said.

To that, one person suggested that most of North County’s garbage be diverted to Sycamore, but that a small stream of trash still be allowed inside the San Marcos dump, so that it will remain open yet not reach capacity.

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Another official wondered whether garbage could still be dumped wholesale at San Marcos, with the expectation that the EIR will eventually be approved, allowing its expansion. As a sign of good faith, he proposed that the county post a monetary bond promising to take out whatever garbage is dumped in San Marcos and put it somewhere else if the expansion plans collapse altogether.

Many of Friday’s comments reflected the contempt in which the cities hold the county. After San Marcos Mayor Lee Thibadeau remarked that “we’re all responsible” in part for the landfill crisis, Carlsbad Mayor Bud Lewis answered: “We weren’t invited (by the county to help resolve landfill issues) until 1986 or ’87. We weren’t considered part of the brain trust.”


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