Voters in Kern County have moved toward slamming the door on the city of Los Angeles' practice of trucking its treated sewage sludge to farmland it owns in the rural county, forcing Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to consider waging an expensive campaign or pony up millions more to truck the stuff to Arizona.
More than 24,000 Kern County voters signed an initiative petition that has qualified a ballot measure to ban Los Angeles and other outsiders from spreading their sludge on farmland in Kern County.
The ballot measure could go before voters in June, unless it is adopted into law by the Kern County Board of Supervisors before then.
"It's a very serious issue," Villaraigosa said Sunday. "We're very concerned that public officials in Kern County would take this action."
Half a dozen sanitation agencies from Los Angeles and Orange counties ship 450,000 tons of treated sewage each year to Kern County, more than half of which -- 273,000 tons -- comes from the city of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles for a decade has shipped 25 truckloads of treated human waste daily to a 4,700-acre farm called Green Acres that it owns south of Bakersfield.
The sludge, also called biosolids, is what is left over after treatment plants clean and remove water from sewage. It is used to fertilize soil for the farming of produce that is then fed to cows and other animals. None of the produce is used for human consumption.
Federal and state environmental laws have stopped cities and counties from dumping the sludge in the ocean and have severely limited the ability to dispose of the waste in local landfills, according to John Collins, a Fountain Valley city councilman and former board chairman for the Orange County Sanitation District.
Three counties -- Sutter, San Joaquin and Stanislaus -- have already banned the import of sludge for spreading on farmland, and nine others have strict rules that make the importation all but impossible.
As a result, the city of Los Angeles and other producers of the sludge have backup plans that call for the biosolids to go to private lands in Arizona if Kern County closes the door.
Kern County leaders say the treated sewage presents a health risk because it contains heavy metals, industrial waste and other toxic substances.
"It contains materials that are harmful to our groundwater and that endanger the residents of our county," said Donald Maben, a member of the Kern County Board of Supervisors.
Trucking Los Angeles' sludge to Arizona could add millions of dollars to the city's disposal costs, said Rita Robinson, director of the Los Angeles city Sanitation Bureau.
"It's a tremendous impact for us if we have to quickly find another way to dispose of this," she said. "We're talking about 750 tons per day and unless people stop flushing their toilets, then it's not going to stop."
If the Kern County Board of Supervisors puts the measure on the ballot, Villaraigosa said he is not ruling out a campaign to defeat the ban.
"We may have to," he said. "That's something we will evaluate. It's the kind of issue, though, that once it gets on the ballot people ... can mischaracterize what's going on."
Any campaign for the measure could turn into a nasty one, letting loose decades of resentment in the more rural county to the north about the way it has been treated by the most populous county in the state.
"It just seems Los Angeles particularly is intent on saying, 'You are going to take what we give you,' " said state Sen. Dean Florez (D-Shafter), who led the initiative drive after Los Angeles officials balked at a compromise proposal to phase out the dumping over two years.
Florez said the Kern County board has not done enough to fight the dumping and hopes the ban will be placed on the ballot for a full debate.
"There is a very poor, rural community being dumped on by a richer, more urban area," Florez said.
The initiative backers, called Keep Kern Clean, needed to collect the signatures of 15,767 voters in the county to qualify the measure for the ballot but, just to be safe, they turned in 24,000.
Last week, Kern County elections officials determined there were sufficient valid signatures for the Board of Supervisors to put the measure on the June ballot, adopt the ban into law or request a report on the proposal before putting the measure on a ballot after June.
Maben indicated there is support for putting the measure on the ballot this year.
Anticipating that the ban on sludge might win on the Kern County ballot, Robinson said the city is already consulting with attorneys about protecting its right to use its farm.
Robinson said the city has met all legal and environmental requirements to dump the treated sewage on the farm.
"We've been working within the laws," she said. "There are no legal or environmental problems."
At the request of the mayor's office, Robinson said she has begun putting together materials for a public education campaign to attempt to convince Kern County voters that the sludge poses no health risk.
The city of Los Angeles is already under pressure to find alternative sites for dumping the nearly 1 million tons of trash it generates each year. Homeowners around the Sunshine Canyon Landfill in the Granada Hills area have demanded the city stop dumping all of its trash in the landfill, and city officials this month will consider disposal alternatives.
A ban on biosolids would also affect the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, which ship about five truckloads to Kern County each day.
Also affected would be the Orange County Sanitation District, which sends about 230 tons of sludge to Kern County each day.
"If Kern County is eliminated as a disposal option, then we will have to send this someplace else, and the someplace will be a further distance to drive, i.e. it would cost more money," Collins said.