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San Diego's trash dumps — goodbye fast

Just filling in

“How do you extract valuable materials from several thousand compacted tons of trash a day?"
  • “How do you extract valuable materials from several thousand compacted tons of trash a day?"
  • Image by Craig Carlson

It’s time to talk trash in San Diego County.

A bulldozer then breaks down the pile and spreads it out.

A bulldozer then breaks down the pile and spreads it out.

“The beast refuses to stay down, man Every day it grows, and then we knock it down Then another one grows right next to it, like in that Disney cartoon — can’t remember its, name — with all the water buckets that keep popping up, one after another.

The thing is a monster that eats everything And San Diego feeds it 361 days a year. Five pounds a day, each person does, whatever they don’t want anymore Then they turn their back on it It’s out of their hair, is all. But I know it’s growing. I drive a 'dozer over that beast every day, and I know it’s growing — faster and faster and bigger, man, filling the canyons till the land is gone.”

"If I could excavate new holes there,” argues Bob Allen, chief of solid waste disposal for the county, “I could stretch them another five to fifteen years."

"If I could excavate new holes there,” argues Bob Allen, chief of solid waste disposal for the county, “I could stretch them another five to fifteen years."

The speaker, we’ll call him Andrew (‘‘Supervisor’d have my ass if he knew I was talking to reporters”), takes a slow sip of beer and kicks back, relaxing after his day’s work at a landfill site in San Diego. He stifles a low laugh and apologizes: “Sorry, man. I sometimes get a little carried away at the end of the day. Out there, at the landfill, I do my job, you know? But sometimes when I leave the job and look back, the working face of the site is like some kind of monster’s mouth — always hungry, it seems, and you can never feed it enough.”

For every article thrown away in sorrow, joy, or anger, however, there is one that is lost accidentally.

For every article thrown away in sorrow, joy, or anger, however, there is one that is lost accidentally.

Where Andrew sees a beast, others involved in the collection, the disposal, and the future of “solid waste" in San Diego refer to the more than two million tons of refuse thrown away each year — in the city and county combined — as the “inverted mountain,” a massive heap of trash that clogs the canyons of the area. “A garbage crisis,” says Don Solem, who manages public relations for the State Solid Waste Management Board. “The pro-consumption messages of the advertising media have created a throwaway economy, which is threatening our pocketbooks, economy, and quality of life.” Outside of Solem’s declamatory rhetoric, garbage seems a little out of place when compared to such crises as energy, inflation, and crime. But in San Diego the problems it creates, like the beast and the inverted mountain, are growing.

The May sun on this Saturday afternoon lazily picks its way through puffs of coastal clouds. Dick and Liz — they asked to be called that — are doing the same at the Miramar landfill, on Mercury Road in Kearny Mesa. “It’s a treasure chest out here,” Liz says as she unloads an Alpha Beta bag full of refuse from her car. “We come here almost every weekend and scout around. Which is illegal. The workers don’t like you to loiter at all. Signs say so. And they watch you like a hawk. So we unload our stuff slowly, a bag at a time, and keep on the lookout for whatever’s there that day.”

Wearing an old red flannel shirt with flecks of yellow paint down the front, Liz is an attractive brunette in her late thirties. As she talks, her eyes wander around the pile of refuse swelling up behind a long row of cars and trucks, and also over to the truck, at the side of the site, where spotters monitor the dumping. She quickly scans the small mounds of trash surrounding her, with sharp eyes in search of something that almost has to find her. “If you come here looking for specific things, you’ll never find them. No. You just have to be open to the whole thing. Inspect as much of the pile as you can in a short period of time. Oops! Here comes a spotter. Get busy, honey.”

“Righto,” replies Dick, heading back to the car for another bag.

“The things people throw away are mind-boggling,” says Dick, a man in his early forties with graying streaks invading his coal-black hair. Like his Audi, which has yet to eclipse its warranty, Dick’s expensive, pale blue jogging outfit and matching blue sneakers suggest that his and Liz's excursions through the mounds of waste are motivated by speculation rather than financial need.

On this day, Dick and Liz have made a “good haul”: a forlorn, armless teddy bear (with one of its button-eyes dangling from a frayed thread), several orange juice containers (“Liz is a painter on the side,” Dick whispers proudly), and a rumpled, extra large, collarless work shirt (“Wash it a few times and you’ve got a neat artist's smock”).

A county ordinance prohibits scavenging at landfills. Once in the gutter, garbage is the legal property of the city and county. But organized, legal efforts have been made to salvage the tons and tons of recyclable materials from the San Diego landfills. They have had mixed results thus far. “There’s gold in them thar dumps,” says Terry A. Trumbull, chairman of the State Solid Waste Management Board. Referring to aluminum, tin, and steel, the materials that do not degrade in a landfill, Trumbull contends that “the stuff we’re throwing away is so valuable that we'll be out there mining it in the next twenty years.”

On-site efforts to salvage valuable resources require a double dumping of the trash, an added expense that not only creates a potential contamination problem but that also, as yet, has not been able to recover the initial costs of the two-stage process. In a nonprofit project approved by the county. Bob Miljan of the Conservation Association of San Diego headed a group of “pickers” through the trash at Otay. Their aims, eventually restricted to the salvaging of steel — old car parts, ovens, bathtubs, plumbing — were twofold: recover what they could and, as a consequence of the first aim, reduce the amount of waste buried in a landfill. For two years, the project failed to break even.

In the third year it began to be successful but, according to Miljan, “the project went to pot in a handbasket when the heavy rains came in 1978, when our forklift broke, and when the bottom fell out of the steel market." Miljan and the association have other reclamation projects in the works, including a large, on-site separation system that will sort out “low density" materials — paper, fabrics, plastics — from a load of refuse.

Bud Porter, a contract lobbyist who represents the private and public refuse haulers in the county, summarizes the problem of on-site recovery: “How do you extract valuable materials from several thousand compacted tons of trash a day? You can’t break a compacted load with a stick of dynamite. And every time a component rises in value it no longer appears in the waste stream. There could be ten million dollars worth of aluminum in the ground this minute, but with today’s technology it would cost us twenty-five million to dig it out."

“Nobody ever paid much attention to trash before," Porter continues. “It was a cheap commodity, and there were any number of canyons in the immediate vicinity that could be filled. But now any time they close a landfill and have no replacement, the trucks have to drive extra miles from the collection to the disposal site. Costs have skyrocketed, hazardous wastes are starting to haunt us, we are throwing valuable materials needlessly into the ground, and those canyons are beginning to fill up.”

Over coffee at a restaurant near the Miramar landfill, Dick and Liz are reviewing their newly acquired possessions as if they had returned from a shopping spree. Liz reflects on a thesis she expounded earlier: “The dump is like — or could be like — a swap meet. You name it and it’s out there. All kinds of clothing, lamps and shades, chipped china, bed-springs, houseplants that, with care and a few kind words, could be saved — you name it. Dick found a flashlight, perfectly operable and almost brand new, a couple of weeks ago. It just needed a battery.

“You stand at the dumps," she continues, “and you think ‘This is us This is what we toss out — the other side of America’s Finest City.' At one time everything here was all new and glittering, fancy things at fancy prices. But its life is short. Yet so much of it is reusable. If people don’t want something they think someone else might be able to use, there should be places at the dumpsites where the stuff could be dropped off so others could give it a once-over."

The men working at Miramar and the other landfill sites regard Liz’s opinion from a different perspective. “Public looting is dangerous," says John Simpson, who drives the heavy equipment at the Otay landfill. “Sometimes when you push up the trash, the pressure created will make things pop out. I’ve seen a two-by-four jump out of the pile and fly thirty feet. People could get run over or step on a broken bottle and get cut up. But they’ll see something in the trash and they’ll run in there, even though a ’dozer is coming up the line at them.”

Two such episodes spring to Simpson’s mind. A while back, as he was pushing a load of trash up the grade, a woman was jumping up and down and waving her arms, “I’m in a D8 Caterpillar that weighs 80,000 pounds, and I’m moving her way. When I saw her, I stopped the machine. She ran right in front of the blade and into the pile of trash. She came out scolding a six-year-old child. The kid had spotted some toy from the car and had to have it. ’’ Simpson recalls another occasion when he was backing the D8 into the pile to tamp down a “soft spot" — a void or gap in the trash that impedes the progress of the bulldozer. “You have greater visibility going backwards," Simpson says, “and we back up whenever possible. Good thing. One time I was backing up and this guy ran right up behind me. I had to slam down hard on the brakes to stop from hitting him. He came out of the pile with four aluminum cans. He risked his life for four cents’ worth of aluminum!”

Loitering and scavenging — and the potential dangers they pose — are only part of the many problems at a landfill. Long lines of cars and trucks dump trash at the sites each day. Twelve to fifteen hundred vehicles per day come to Miramar, currently the city’s only public refuse site. In the county, an estimated 600 vehicles during the week — and 1200 on weekends — arrive at the Sycamore landfill in Santee and rumble through the gates of the Otay fill. Traffic control, needless to say, is a problem.

Once or twice a year, a packing truck will bring in a “hot load” — which occurs when a fire starts inside the truck. Bud Porter remembers a time when a large compacting truck picked up a load from a “Dempster dumpster” at the beach. In the pile were hot coals. “They ignited the entire haul,” Porter says, “and the driver had two options: walk away and let a very expensive truck be demolished, or drop the load right there — wherever it is, Fifth and Broadway, even." Fortunately, in this case the driver made it to the landfill before the fire became severe. He dropped the load in a special area, spread out the burning trash, saved the truck, and no one was harmed.

State regulations have curtailed some kinds of dangerous wastes that can be brought to a site. Anything that is over fifty percent liquid is considered “liquid waste’’ and cannot be dumped at a landfill. Nuclear waste, of course, is under the precarious aegis of the federal government. But even something as seemingly insignificant as a common smoke detector can present a problem. “Smoke detectors use a small particle of uranium as a sensor," says Bill Sterling, chief of disposal operations for the city. “If people have a smoke detector that doesn’t work, they should send it back to the manufacturer. Not to a landfill."

The law forbids the dumping of “hazardous wastes” at a landfill. These are usually chemical solutions — paints, oils, and compounds derived from manufacturing or dry cleaning, for example — that pose a serious threat to health and safety, either by themselves or when combined with other materials. According to Terry Trumbull, of the state’s waste management board. “About five million metric tons of hazardous solid wastes are generated in California each year. They represent one of the major problems in solid waste at the present time.” The Otay landfill had a Class I rating and was used as a site for dumping these wastes until last November. Now there is no facility in the county where they may be disposed of legally. They are either taken to the Chancellor-Ogden Company on Miramar Road in Kearny Mesa, which ships them to West Covina where they are injected into a clay-based soil, or they are dumped covertly somewhere in the county.

The operators and fee collectors at landfill sites are constantly watching for hazardous wastes, but not everything in bags and containers carries a warning sign on it. John Simpson once drove his bulldozer over a clear plastic, ten-gallon container. “The fumes came up into the air-conditioning unit on the D8. My eyes began to water over, and I dove out of the cabin. I threw up four times and couldn’t breathe. To this day we don’t know what was in that damn drum.”

Simpson drives the heavy equipment at the Otay landfill. He began as a fee collector six years ago and has operated the equipment at several county sites for the last four years. A large man — “You’ll be able to recognize me; I have a dark brown beard, am five-nine, and weigh 250 pounds” — he crushed a disk and pinched a nerve in his back three months ago while working at a landfill. Since then he has added thirty pounds to his frame and has been able to do only light duty in the fee booth at Otay.

Regulations have helped to control the dumping of hazardous wastes at landfills, at least in the private sector, he says. It is a different matter with the public. “People think that once it’s in the ground — basta! — it’s gone. So they throw away chemicals, poisons, insecticides, and if that stuff gets into the water table, who knows where it’s going? Because we don’t know what’s in them — especially the old ones, I mean, like Love Canal — some of these old landfills are like volcanoes getting ready to go off. And a lot of the people using the sites right now don’t realize they could be poisoning the land for future generations.”

Love Canal was a hazardous waste disposal site, owned by Hooker Chemical in Buffalo, New York. It closed in the late 1940s, and the site was covered over and donated to the city for a park. There was a series of confusions — or just mismanagement, as some claim — regarding the land records in the area, and a school was erected on the property. During its construction, sewers were dug that exposed the wastes within. Shortly thereafter, there were a number of birth defects and other illnesses allegedly engendered by the chemicals polluting the area. An area one mile bv one mile was contaminated by the abuse of the property, and the federal government had to spend one billion dollars to buy up all the neighboring houses around the site, a process it completed in 1979.

Modern sanitary landfill practices avert many of the most immediate causes of such problems as Love Canal. In addition to excluding the three dangerous forms of waste — liquid, hazardous, and nuclear — landfills in the area employ a “cut and fill” operation, the most advanced method to date, to bury the normal items disposed of by the general public — paper, plastics, refrigerators (also known as “white goods”), unwanted neckties, balking Cuisinarts, automobile engine blocks, photos of ex-lovers — the “solid waste stream” of San Diego.

The process starts everywhere. Every weekday morning — at an average cost of three dollars per ton per mile, from the collection to the disposal site — the city sends out seventy trucks, each making at least two trips a day. Seventeen private and two public firms do the same in the county. At any one of the ubiquitous collection points, at a Dempster dumpster for example, the long metal arms of the front-end-hauling vehicle slide into the slots on the sides of the bins and lift them over the front of the truck. The waste pours into a hopper and then is pushed by a mechanical rani toward the back of the truck, where it is compacted into a large bin. About ten tons of heavy, wet waste can be pushed into the bin, which averages fifteen to eighteen feet in height and thirty feet in depth, but on a sunny day, when the waste is dry and lighter, as much as thirty tons can be compacted by the powerful rams on the truck.

When they are loaded to capacity, the trucks head for the landfill site in their district. At present, the city operates one full-time site, Miramar (which averages 1500 tons of public and private trash a day), one restricted site, South Chollas (which disposes of 250 to 300 tons per day from city collection trucks only), and the Montgomery “demolition” site, which disposes of tree stumps, rocks, and other unwieldy materials. The county operates six sites: Sycamore in Santee, Otay, San Marcos. Bonsall, Ramona, and a smaller landfill in Borrego. There are also ten stations in the East County that have six-yard bins (like Dempster dumpsters) and fifty -yard containers; these stations are contracted out to private haulers.

After maneuvering through the various vehicles that work at the landfill, the trucks dump the waste onto the ground surface of the site, which makes up the “lower deck” of what will eventually be a large mound. A bulldozer then breaks down the pile and spreads it out, in order to facilitate pushing it up the grade created by previous deposits that day. This “push” — done by huge crawler tractors with wide, U-shaped blades — levels out the mound of trash going up the grade at a desired thickness of around two feet for each ascent. This thickness prevents the creation of voids or gaps, soft spots in the fill, and insures a fairly even settling of the waste.

Most heavy equipment operators agree that if the waste has been collected from a single commercial location, such as a factory, the “homogenous load” can be processed fairly easily. But the odd mix of things thrown out in public refuse often requires the operators to approach it in the tractors from at least three different angles before they can break up the waste into workable loads. This requires more time and a considerable amount of skill.

“A good equipment operator,” a worker who asked not to be identified said proudly, “can do unbelievable things with a ’dozer. Take Don LaChusa over at Sycamore. He’s the best operator in San Diego — the John Jefferson of equipment operators. He’s worked on heavy equipment for eighteen years and can spin that big ’dozer on a dime — can spin that 80,000 pound machine around like a ballerina!”

The trash that is pushed up the hill of waste, at the end of the day, creates a “cell” of compacted refuse. This mass is covered with a minimum of six inches of earth. The daily covering layer helps to control what are called “vectors” — animals, such as rodents, that distribute the noxious parts of the refuse to the surrounding areas — and fires, since the latter cannot go, in theory, beyond one cell. A cross-section of a group of these cells would look like a honeycomb of oblong cubes, large, compressed lumps of compacted trash enclosed by layers of dirt.

When an area of the landfill is completed, an intermediate covering layer — eighteen inches of dirt — goes over it to enable vehicles to drive over the compacted fill. You can tell if you’re standing on one if the ground below you shivers, like a vertical earthquake, under the weight of the larger hauling trucks. This shivering motion, caused by the trash settling underground, also encourages tires — one of the more air-loving of solid waste materials — to force themselves back up to the surface. They pop out of the ground like buoys on a restless sea.

Most of the heavy equipment operators do not think much about the piles of refuse they push up each day. Says Sam Hyde, operator of a D8 Caterpillar at Otay, “It’s a job, and up in the cab of the ’dozer, twelve feet off the ground, you don’t see much in particular. You’re too busy moving the stuff and looking out for the public. But when the fish wagon comes in and dumps a load downwind — then it’s trash. Whee-you. Man, that odor’d clean out your head real quick!’’

Seen from a distance, or from the cab of a D8 Caterpillar, the piles of trash look like heaps of dewy confetti. Few individual items — not counting the dead whale buried at Miramar about a year ago — are discernible and those that are exist in a tattered state. An occasional brand name, from an overwrapped package, pokes out of the heap (“America’s the only country in the world that wraps everything three times,” a man said to me) and still begs mutely for one’s attention. The glossy facades that once attracted one to the item they contained in a store are the first things to be discarded. And the landfill — at the top of the heap, if you will — resembles the surreal residue of every commercial ever broadcast. The musty odor that emanates from the pile, however, repulses one almost to the degree that the initial designs and bright colors on the package were meant to draw one’s attention in the first place. Seen from a distance, the piles take on an almost archaeological quality. They are the fossils of a throwaway society, soon to be buried. Seen from a distance, that is. Up close, they are something else again: yogurt containers with the fruit still at the bottom, a ten-pound cellophane bag full of stale theater popcorn, empty bottles of everything from Tab to Perrier, an old, yellowish baseball glove with Don Drys-dale’s signature on it, a copy of William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, a battered Head ski, a half-finished crossword puzzle.

“People’ll throw away anything,’’ says John Simpson at the Otay landfill. “A man came in here a while back, with a trailer full of furniture, and asked us to dig a hole in the middle of the pile. It turns out his daughter died and he couldn’t see keeping the stuff around — or even giving it to anyone.” So Simpson and his co-workers dug a hole, buried dressers, chests, clothing, and everything else the woman possessed, and pushed them up the hill.

Simpson mentioned several motives for throwing away valuable items. A death prompts the bereaved to dispose of useful things. Unexpected gifts also encourage this response. When his son-in-law gave a man and his wife a new washer/dryer for their thirtieth wedding anniversary, the man rented a U-Haul trailer and brought his original appliances to the landfill. These were, at most, two years old. But the single phenomenon that accounts for the largest number of valuable items discarded, according to Simpson, is divorce. “A furious guy came in here a few weeks back, as mad as you ever saw,” says Simpson. “He had a big trailer full of things, and he just began throwing everything on the pile. Every time he’d throw something, he’d scream ‘I don’t ever want to see you again, you bitch!’ And then he’d swear to beat hell as he went back to the trailer for another load. That scene’s very common at a landfill.”

For every article thrown away in sorrow, joy, or anger, however, there is one that is lost accidentally. It was at the Palomar Transfer Station in Carlsbad where Arietta and her husband Don tried to overcome a costly miscommunication. “This happened the day of the Chargers-Steelers game,” she recalls. “There was a full moon that night and a winter solstice. Given those signs, I should have known something was going to happen.”

The day before. Arietta and her husband had borrowed $1800 from her parents for the down payment on an A-frame in Colorado. Her father handed Don the money — eighteen crisp, one hundred dollar bills — in a white, letter-size envelope. At the same time. Arietta’s mother gave her a “CARE package” of sorts, an Alpha Beta bag with food in it.

“I put the bag in the trunk of our Fiat,” she recalls. “We went to play tennis and, though I didn’t know it at the time, my husband put the white envelope with the money into the Alpha Beta bag. When we got home late that night, I put the food away and threw the bag into the trash container.”

Arietta awoke early Monday morning. She collected all the trash, stuck it inside one of “those el cheapo, white plastic bags,” and set it out for the collectors to pick up. Then Don woke up at 9:00 and asked where the money was.

“The whaa?”

“The white envelope I put in the Alpha Beta bag!”

“It’s in the . . .? Oh good God!”

By the time they realized what had happened, the collectors were long gone.

“We left our eight-year-old in front of the TV,” Arietta says, “and went chasing after the garbage truck. When we found it, the man didn’t speak any English, so we followed him to the Palomar Transfer Station behind the airport.”

At 10:30 in the morning, they received permission to explore the pile dumped by the truck. Most landfill operators agree that trying to find something small in a twenty-ton pile of garbage is an impossibility. “Pick out a color in a heap of trash,” says Sam Hyde at the Otay dump. “Now turn your head away and then look back and see if you can find it. Tough, eh?” Impossible. “Now imagine trying to find a small object in a compacted mound of refuse — like a wallet, or the deed to your house, or false teeth (man lost his a while back). The chances of finding it are a million to one. We always try to help them if there’s time, but usually it’s too busy on the site to do it.”

Nonetheless, with the permission of the supervisor at the Palomar site. Arietta and Don began picking through the pile. They waded through “a heap of goopy, disgusting trash: cat sand, avocado peels, coffee grinds, rotting leaves, even a dead bird or two." The bulldozer had spread out an enormous amount of garbage, and the people at the station, during their breaks, would help them look.

At around 3:00 in the afternoon. Arietta and Don felt they were on to something. “We found a Christmas card envelope addressed to us from an aunt in Brewster, Kansas. We thought we were close then."

They waded through the trash cat sand, avocado peels, coffee grinds, rotting leaves, even a dead bird or two.

But at 5:00 p.m., the station was closing. They shoved the whole pile into the pit, and we never found the money.”

“If you own it,” says Sam Hyde, “it’s been lost at a landfill.” Last year a woman slammed her Mercedes to a stop at the Palomar Transfer Station and spent the day looking for the earrings she had lost. And never recovered. They were worth $12,000. On another occasion, a man had carelessly thrown away a billfold. His frenetic search through the refuse proved successful, however, and he recovered the wallet — and the $20,000 contained inside.


Depending on its size — and how effectively it is operated — a landfill can last from five to twenty years or more. When a site is full, a final cover material — usually a native soil between three to five feet thick with a fertilizer base — is spread over the area. Current methods of compacting trash create few gaps and voids in the fill itself, though individual cells may still have semicompacted spaces that will eventually settle, pulling down the ground above them. This settling occurs gradually in the first four years after the site has been covered. Then, in the following year, the fill may drop another three to four feet. During this entire period the city or county maintains the site, which will eventually become an area for recreation activities which are not intensive — such as the park in Encinitas or the equestrian area at Valley Center. Most experts in the field agree, though, that a compacted landfill can never support a permanent structure.

In the county, the Sycamore and Otay landfills will last another twenty years (“And if I could excavate new holes there,” argues Bob Allen, chief of solid waste disposal for the county, “I could stretch them another five to fifteen years, but the county won't spend two million now to save many millions in future hauling costs”). But Bill Sterling, the city’s chief of disposal operations, is very concerned about the decreasing capacity of landfills. The city alone disposes of 2000 tons of waste a day, he says, and every San Diegan throws away almost one ton of garbage a year. “I really feel,” Sterling says, “that there are better things to do with the material than merely put it in the ground. We must explore alternatives, like SANDER [a government-sponsored energy recovery project] — which I favor. The county plans to have buy-back centers at three of its sites [Sycamore, Otay, and the Palomar Transfer Station] starting this summer. I strongly encourage recycling, especially now that it is becoming cost-effective, and since we are literally running out of both canyons and resources. Our society must learn to become more resource conscious.”

Terry Trumbull also has a few words to say in this regard. “The insufficient recycling in San Diego is very disturbing. It has no curbside pick-up — as do Marin County and several cities in Northern California [Palo Alto, Berkeley, Davis, and Fresno being some], which put cans, bottles, and newspapers next to their regular trash at the curb. This ‘source separation’ at home — which is the key to the whole thing — leads to a tenfold increase in the amount of recycling of these materials. As yet, San Diego offers no such services. I think the Ecology Center is doing a fine job, but the citizenry is lagging behind the rest of the state.”

One alternative to dumping trash in landfills is the San Diego Energy Recovery Project. SANDER is a mass burning technique in which the trash is put in a “super oven” and burned at high temperatures beneath tubes filled with water. The steam that results can then be sold directly or used to drive turbine engines that could generate enough electricity to serve an estimated 30.000 households. A joint project of the city and county, the plant is scheduled to open in January, 1986, and, taking increased inflation into consideration, it will cost about $200 million. This lofty price tag, says the project’s Nicole Clay, would be offset in four to nine years by tipping fees at the plant and the sale of the energy. The plant would process 1200 tons of waste each day — eighteen percent of the region’s solid waste.

Although the mass burning of refuse creates a by-product, an ash residue considered hazardous in California, Terry Trumbull, of the state’s waste management board, favors the project. “Mv staff seems to think the ash disposal will not be a problem,” he says, “and I like the type of plant they’ve chosen because it’s simpler in design than many others that have been tried. In the United States, there’s a tendency to over-technologize, to outdo the European designs for mass burning plants. But this particular design has a good track record. And right now in California, which dumps 46 million tons of garbage each year — enough to fill Interstate 5 ten feet high from Oregon to Mexico — we are fast approaching a landfill crisis and are literally running out of dump space.”

A source who favors the project “in principle,” however, claimed that — because of its cost, its current siting problems, the fact that it may discourage recycling, and the ash residue — SANDER’S road may be bumpy. “The first plant is at least five years in the future. A mound of red tape, all of which will have to be dumped somewhere, stands in the way. And yet the city and the county are putting all of their waste into one magical dumpsite, if you will, as if it will solve all the problems at once. In the meantime, the county will close the Bonsall landfill next year. It has no plans for an alternative site. And the city, well, it’s got a few problems too.”

The city’s Miramar site is about one year away from reaching its capacity. The South Chollas landfill, currently servicing only small amounts of municipal waste, will reach its limit sometime this summer. The new location at North Chollas — object of vehement citizen protest and allegedly the cause of sixteen cancerous deaths due to ash deposits uncovered in its excavation — would have a life span of five years and three months. Its present status, according to Mary Slupe, who works on the city’s engineering staff, is “up in the air.”

The response to North Chollas — siting problems, regulations, citizen outcries, allegedly hazardous ash and leachate polluting ground water — has become typical in California of late, the source told me. “No one wants a dump next door. Even though they have changed the names of things — a dump is a “sanitary landfill,” garbage is “solid waste” — and even though San Diego uses the most modem means of disposing trash, to the point that landfill operators from around the country come here to see how it’s done, the bottom line is that no one wants a dump next door. Would you?”

I was told that the initial acquisition of a landfill can cost a fortune. And one can go through the whole process, all the paperwork, obtaining of permits, clearances from state agencies. Environmental Impact Reports, local hearings, geological testings, and then “have some review board throw the whole thing down the tubes.”

“At the present time,” the source continued, “the North Chollas site is in limbo, and Miramar has about a year before it is through.” The primary area where the city plans to dispose of waste in the future, between next year and the year 2000, is a 900-acre site west of the current landfill at Miramar. It will be able to accommodate in excess of 15 million tons.

“I don’t mean to over-dramatize the issue just yet,” he said, “since everything could move along as scheduled. But the new site has no permits yet, and the creation of new landfills has not gone at all smoothly in the last few years. What happens if, for instance, the site doesn’t pass all the criteria for a sanitary landfill? Or what happens if the Navy, which owns the land, decides that — for security reasons, say — the location is too close to the base? If the city loses the proposed site at Miramar, it’s dead. It has no other alternatives. Just where is it going to put those 15 million tons of garbage?”

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