Counties ask high court to rule on Kern County’s human waste ban

Los Angeles and Orange counties’ sanitation districts have petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to rule that a voter-approved ban on dumping processed human waste in Kern County violates federal interstate commerce laws.

The petition aims to abolish a ballot initiative overwhelmingly approved by Kern County voters in 2006 that makes it a misdemeanor to dump treated wastes known as biosolids on unincorporated county land.

The ban effectively ending shipments of treated waste from Southern California.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had previously determined that the operations were not protected by federal interstate commerce laws because they involved transfers of a commodity from one portion of the state to another.

The ban, it said, “in no way burdens the recyclers’ protected interest in the interstate waste market.”

The appellate court Tuesday sent the case back to U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

“At that point,” said Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker, “we said: ‘Wait. We want the nation’s highest court to determine whether this is a legal form of interstate commerce and therefore beyond the reach of local legislation.’ ”

Federal and state environmental laws have stopped cities and counties from dumping the sludge in the ocean and have severely limited sanitation districts’ ability to dispose of the waste in local landfills.

The Kern County law known as Measure E was approved to slam the door on the practice of hauling more than 450,000 tons a year of treated sewage known as biosolids to Green Acres, a 4,700-acre farm Los Angeles bought in 1999 at a cost of about $15 million.

The sludge is used to fertilize crops, including corn.

The sparsely populated agricultural county has been battling in court ever since to uphold the ban, which it said was intended to protect underground water and the local environment from possible contamination and emissions from diesel trucks.

Campaign slogans such as “Measure E will stop L.A. from dumping on Kern,” and “We’ve got the bully next door flinging garbage over his fence into our yard” made it clear that the measure was aimed at Southern California’s waste.

Kern County Deputy Counsel Charles F. Collins was unavailable for comment.

The petition warned that the 9th Circuit’s decision and the Kern County ban, if upheld, could unleash discriminatory trade war restrictions among municipalities in the same state.

California wastewater agencies manage about 750,000 tons of biosolids a year and dispose of more than 500,000 tons of the sludge in land applications that include the Green Acres operation.

Blocking the transfer of the sludge would increase air pollution by forcing more than 26 city trucks a day to haul the processed waste hundreds of miles to landfills in Arizona and beyond at an annual cost of more than $4 million, according to the petition.

“Beyond all that, Kern County would stand to lose upward of $5 million a year in tax revenues from the Green Acres operation and adjacent businesses, which rely upon its crops,” Pritsker said.