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Foes Raise a Stink but Fail to Halt Sludge Plan

TIMES STAFF WRITER

One thing people learn fast when they live in the Antelope Valley is that the winds can really blow.

On Thanksgiving night a couple of years ago, the gusts were so strong that a barn on the farm where the Bio Gro division owned by Waste Management Inc. has its local operations blew three-quarters of a mile down the road.

Which is why many of the neighbors here, along with County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, vehemently oppose a proposal by Bio Gro to truck tons of treated human waste from Los Angeles and other places to the High Desert and let it bake in the open air before selling it as fertilizer.

It’s the latest example of what locals say is a more than 20-year effort to make the High Desert a dumping ground for waste from Los Angeles and Orange counties. Last summer, the county Regional Planning Commission voted to more than double the capacity of a Lancaster landfill, also owned by Waste Management, that has a history of accepting waste from as far away as Cypress.

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“The cities and counties are starting to run out of room,” said Dave Vannatta, Antonovich’s planning deputy. “So where are they going to take the stuff? . . . I think it could be a real problem.”

Bio Gro, which is owned by the largest garbage-collection and dump-operating company in the nation, failed to win approval from the Regional Planning Commission for its plan to make and sell soil amendments from the sewage sludge and other waste.

The vote, taken in 1996, was far from close: Commissioners turned the project down by a 5-1 majority after Bio Gro refused to consider enclosing the operation so the wind would not blow dust from the decomposing sewage toward nearby homes.

But company officials, believing they would get a more sympathetic hearing from the Board of Supervisors, appealed the decision, and last year won the board’s approval in concept.

Today, the board plans to discuss the final environmental impact report on the proposal and grant permission for the work to begin.

When up and running, the facility would be used to mix and compost up to 500 wet tons of municipal sewage per day, and 1,000 wet tons of organic wastes, such as yard trimmings and manure.

The waste would be placed to decompose in rows 850 feet long and 7 feet high. When done composting, its moisture content reduced to 37%, it would be sold to a distributor who would either truck it to farms or put it in bags to sell at garden stores.

“If you go to Kmart or Home Depot and read the ingredients on soil amendments, you will see that many of them are made with biosolids,” the industry jargon for treated human waste, said Bio Gro technical services coordinator Linda Novick.

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Three homes are located within 1,000 feet of the project, and a residential neighborhood is two miles away, according to county planners and documents. But Bio Gro plans to buy the nearest homes and has promised to plant five rows of cypress or similar trees along part of the perimeter to catch dust.

“All of the environmental concerns have been addressed,” Novick said, “either in the environmental impact report or through the design of the facility.”

Recycling sewage sludge is an idea that appeals to environmentalists, so it’s been hard for the neighbors and local politicians to win much sympathy from state environmental regulators. Both the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the South Coast Air Quality Management District signed on to the project, as long as the company agreed to put up wind berms and pave the area so the waste doesn’t leach into the ground water supply.

But local officials, including a newly created Antelope Valley Air Pollution Control District, are fuming, saying regulators in far-off Los Angeles don’t care about the dust, smells and ground water concerns of the Antelope Valley.

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The City Council of Lancaster opposes the project, as do the town councils of several nearby communities. In particular, they say, the high winds will blow the drying compost across the desert, contributing to air pollution in an area where ozone and particulate levels already exceed state standards.

“Nobody could object to turning sewer sludge into a usable product,” said R. Lyle Talbot, of High Desert Citizens Against Pollution. “It’s the location that we’re objecting to, and the fact that they won’t put a cover over it. . . . If you’ve ever been in the Antelope Valley and know of these tremendous winds we have--it’s not such a good idea to have it exposed to those winds.”

The winds, according to the Antelope Valley Air Pollution Control District, blow nearly twice as hard in the High Desert as the company and the county say they do. Chuck Fryxell, air pollution control officer for the district, said he is particularly concerned that summer winds--on average, 20 to 25 mph--will blow particulates and heavy metals from the site into the air.

When the new air district was set up last year, Fryxell said, the first thing board members did was fire off a series of letters to the county supervisors and the South Coast air quality district about the Bio Gro project.

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“Everything we’re saying is falling on deaf ears,” he complained. “But we’re stuck with the project.”

The Antelope Valley District plans to impose stringent conditions on the operation, and one board member has threatened to “shut them down” if dust or other pollutants are higher than allowed.

But Fryxell said his agency might not have the clout to stand by its threats, since the South Coast Air Quality Management District indicated that the project is acceptable.

“We can’t say that they must enclose it” as the Regional Planning Commission had recommended and as the cities have demanded, Roberts said. “But we can wait until we find particulates, and then we can say, ‘control it or we will shut you down.’ ”

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Ironically, it may be the marketplace, the vagaries of the waste business itself, rather than environmental regulators that protects the High Desert dwellers from fears of being overrun by other people’s trash and sewage.

A few years ago, cities as far away as San Diego County were sending their waste to Lancaster, said Greg Loughnane, regional vice president for Waste Management. Now there is excess capacity, and landfill operators in Orange and other counties are lobbying aggressively for waste projects.

“The dynamics of the trash industry are pretty wild,” Loughnane said. “It’s impossible to project. But there are a lot of locations nearer to the cities than Lancaster.”


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