In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, Los Angeles challenged a recently passed Kern County law that bars the city from dumping some 250,000 tons of sewage sludge annually on farm fields near Bakersfield.
The ban was overwhelmingly approved in June by Kern County voters, who were convinced that the processed human waste from Los Angeles can contaminate underground water reserves and lead to serious public health problems.
In response to the lawsuit, one of the prime movers behind the ban cast the conflict as a crucial test for L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa should he seek a statewide office.
“He has a huge amount of credibility on the line with us,” said state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter). “In his State of the City address, he said that Los Angeles would be the greenest, cleanest city in America. Is he going to do that at the expense of Kern County?”
Virtually all of the sewage sludge processed in Los Angeles -- and about one-third of California’s -- is trucked into Kern County.
In the Los Angeles lawsuit, whose plaintiffs also include the Orange County Sanitation District and two sludge-related businesses, the ban on sludge is described as “arbitrary and irrational.” The material is so safe that its use on farmland is routine throughout the nation and is “encouraged” by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency -- which Florez and other critics dispute.
Although the critics contend that the varying components of sludge may meld into a toxic brew over time, the lawsuit says the environment in Kern County will be all the poorer without the nutrient-laden fertilizer that is spread on the fields of the 4,200-acre Green Acres Farm owned by the city of Los Angeles.
“Biosolids have only improved the environment in Kern County, and there is no basis for this ban,” Rita Robinson, director of the city’s Bureau of Sanitation, said in a statement.
In the lawsuit, the city says that Kern County officials required Los Angeles to perform a $16-million upgrade of its wastewater processing equipment in order to spread its sludge at Green Acres. The ban makes that expense -- as well as the $10 million the city spent for the farm in 2000 -- pointless, according to the suit.
Anticipating the ballot measure would pass, Los Angeles officials earlier this year said they had lined up farms in Arizona willing to accept the city’s sludge when the Kern ban takes effect at the end of the year.
Florez said he hopes to meet with Villaraigosa next week to persuade him that the city has other alternatives. Florez pointed out that a facility to open in Rialto in 2008 would convert sewage sludge into a fuel that can be used by power plants.