Bucking a statewide mandate for municipal recycling and waste reduction, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted to greatly expand the largest garbage dump in the county and move forward on controversial plans to haul additional trash to the desert.
In the next 10 years, Puente Hills Landfill--a 600-foot-tall mountain made of 62 million tons of trash and covering 1,365 acres--will soar 500 to 600 feet higher, expanding by 37 million tons and 711 acres.
The Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts contend that the county, where residents and businesses create about 53,700 tons of refuse a day, has a garbage crisis, with landfills reaching capacity, new ones opening slowly amid great controversy, and recycling efforts showing spotty results. Until Tuesday's vote, the Puente Hills Landfill had been scheduled to close in November.
But environmentalists say the county is subsidizing landfills rather than bolstering recycling and waste reduction--at a time when state law mandates that all municipalities reduce their waste stream 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000.
"The conservation community looks at this as no more than a Band-Aid," said Patricia Schifferle, spokeswoman for Clean Water Action, a nationwide environmental group concerned with waste disposal issues. "We have a situation here where the county supervisors are not leading the people of Los Angeles into the future, they're chaining them to the past."
Schifferle pointed to Berkeley, where the city has a long-term contract with a manufacturer that allows residents to buy a composter at cost, affording one alternative to use of landfills. And Alameda County voters passed a measure in November that assesses a $6-a-ton fee on all garbage shipped to a landfill; the money is used to pay for reduction and recycling.
Puente Hills Landfill, owned and operated by the county, has the lowest fees in the county and, as a result, receives 25% of all garbage churned out by the area's municipalities.
"We know that the county of Los Angeles has been among the slowest of municipalities to work toward implementation of the (state) waste reduction law," said Lance M. King, community outreach director for the environmental group Californians Against Waste. "It seems like some people there just don't get it."
In making a motion to approve the landfill, Supervisor Deane Dana said "the dwindling amount of landfill capacity is a critical problem for the citizens of Los Angeles County" and Puente Hills "is a critical element to meet the county's necessary disposal capacity."
The supervisors also approved the construction of a nearby materials recovery and rail-loading facility, which will sort solid waste, pick out recyclable items and load the rest of the garbage into rail cars to be hauled into the California or Utah desert for disposal.
Although so-called rail-haul is still in the creation stages, the governing board of the County Sanitation Districts soon will vote on a measure raising fees at Puente Hills from about $16 per ton to about $25.
That increase would be used to fund rail-haul when it finally gets under way in about 1995, said Donald S. Nellor, head of solid waste planning for the Sanitation Districts. The added $9 a ton to be gleaned from the Puente Hills fees would be used to partially offset the $50-a-ton price tag for shipping waste by rail to remote locations--which is passed on to households.
By authorizing the materials recovery and rail-loading facility, the supervisors brought rail-haul "a big step closer to reality," Nellor said. He said he also was pleased about the Puente Hills expansion--even though the Sanitation Districts had asked for double the growth.
"If Puente Hills were to close by Nov. 1, no one can identify where that waste would go," he said. "There's no sufficient permitted (landfill) capability among all the remaining sites in the county for it. (The supervisors) prevented a short-term crisis from happening."
Schifferle and other environmentalists do not buy the gloom-and-doom predictions and contend that when governments make landfills cheaper, they reduce the push to find other means to deal with garbage.
"As soon as we are truly faced with the costs (of garbage disposal), we will start doing things a lot differently," she said. "We will compost most of our green trash, which . . . is more than half of the trash stream. We will recycle a great deal more. And ultimately we will reduce the waste stream."
Jeff Yann, president of the Hacienda Heights Improvement Assn., a group of homeowners in the area around the landfill, also decried the supervisors' decision. They say the dump already is contaminating the aquifer below, which is an important drinking water source, and expansion will only worsen that problem, as well as encroach on wildlife in nearby canyons.
Yann's organization is one of several that has filed suit to get the environmental impact report on the expansion thrown out and the environmental review process started over again. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.
The supervisors "have mandated that the courts will decide the issue" of the landfill expansion, Yann said after the vote. "They're continuing to allow the Sanitation Districts to ramrod their choices through. Federal courts are ultimately going to do solid-waste planning for Los Angeles County."