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Convoys of trucks haul away mud from storms

The heavy rains that unleashed a massive mudslide earlier this month also left nearly 2 million tons of mud in foothill communities -- enough to fill the Rose Bowl twice.

With heavy rains forecast for Saturday morning, officials have been working furiously to remove mud from debris basins, giving neighborhoods below the Station fire burn area a measure of protection.

Hauling away all that muck requires some science, some logistics and a lot of heavy lifting. It also requires a place to dump the debris.

Not surprisingly, while residents of La Cañada Flintridge and surrounding communities are glad to see the mud go, the view is much different in Sylmar, where a mountain of mud is rising.

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A small battalion of trucks, numbering about 300, has been running constantly during daylight hours to empty the 28 debris basins filled in the most recent round of storms. Some Sylmar residents are growing weary of the daily convoy rumbling through neighborhoods, beginning at 6 a.m., spewing exhaust along residential streets.

“This is horrible,” said Stella Jenkins, 72, who feels the trucks vibrate as she walks near her home on Fenton Avenue. “La Cañada has a lot of canyons -- so why are they bringing it here? Because here is poor people and they have no courage to fight for their rights. La Cañada has a lot of wealthy people. This is unfair.”

Sylmar is one of three locations in L.A. County receiving debris from the mudflows -- but it appears to be the place where residents are most up in arms. The community has long complained about being a dumping ground for industrial facilities that other parts of L.A. don’t want.

To some, the mud caravan feels like yet another indignity.

County officials said that they understand the frustration of residents but that they urgently need to clear the basins before another storm hits and that Sylmar is home to one of the debris dumping sites that still has room for large amounts of dirt and mud.

If the basins filled up, catastrophic flows of mud, boulders and trees could come tumbling out of flood control channels and into homes.

“I have a lot of sympathy” for the residents, said Mark Pestrella, deputy director of the county Department of Public Works.

“They’ve just got to understand: The removal of this material is aiding a number of properties and lives. . . . Most residents have understood why we’ve had to make this choice,” he said.

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The dumping operations in Sylmar and at two other facilities, Dunsmuir on Markridge Road in La Crescenta and Zachau on Seven Hills Place in Tujunga, are safe and pose no threat to residents, he added.

So for now, the heavy trucks rumble from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. along Almetz Street in a normally quiet Sylmar neighborhood that happens to be on the doorstep of the May Sediment Placement Site, a county-owned facility just east of Wilson Canyon Park.

The trucks puff their way up a winding gravel road to one of the three enormous plateaus that have been created by compacted dirt wedged between the canyon rims.

One by one, the trucks back toward the edge of the plateaus.

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The driver tilts up the truck’s bed, releasing about 10 cubic yards of dirt in a pile that looks like a giant Hershey’s Kiss.

A yellow compactor then rolls over the mound, keeping the plateau level and packing down the soil on the slope.

Throughout the day, the plateaus grow larger.

Many of the trucks arriving in Sylmar this week were hauling dirt out of the Halls Debris Basin in La Cañada Flintridge, which traps mud flowing down from the San Gabriel Mountains and through Halls Canyon Channel.

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The basin is a concrete bowl larger than two football fields and 20 feet deep.

All week, trucks drove into the bowl, where excavators clawed at the bottom of the basin and hauled dirt into piles.

Another excavator scooped up dirt and dropped it onto the open beds of trucks, filling each one with two scoops and sending it off on the 18-mile journey up the 210 Freeway to Joe Reyes’ neighborhood.

Reyes, 42, an ironworker with two children, lives on Almetz Street in front of the entrance to the dump site. In previous years, he said, Almetz had truck traffic for perhaps two weeks out of the year, and he saw maybe one or two trucks an hour.

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Now he can see more than 20 trucks every five minutes. On a recent afternoon, they were coming in so often they would queue up on Almetz, five to 10 at a time.

“It’s constant. They come speeding down the streets,” said Reyes, adding that he has seen trucks run through stop signs on his street. “My kids like to play out on the street, but I can’t even let them out of the house now . . . because of the fumes.”

Pestrella said he’s concerned about the problems with truck traffic and hopes to eventually increase the number of areas where the dirt can be moved, including a planned facility in La Tuna Canyon that he wants to open ahead of schedule.

But for now, the caravan continues to move through Sylmar.

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“You feel kind of invaded,” said resident Lisa McDonald. “How safe is it if we have another storm? It just seems like Sylmar is a big dumping area.”

ron.lin@latimes.com

Times librarian Scott Wilson contributed to this report.


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