The trouble is trash--or more specifically what to do with it.
In 1979, officials in Long Beach proposed building a trash-to-energy plant that would burn the 600 tons of garbage produced by city residents each day. As a bonus, the plant would generate enough electricity for 18,000 homes.
While a similar plant planned in nearby Compton was sunk by community protest, civic groups and environmentalists welcomed the proposed Long Beach plant--dubbed the Southeast Resource Recovery Facility--as a way to reduce the flood of garbage into area landfills.
Everything seemed ready to go: City officials planned this month to seek a builder and were preparing to sell bonds to finance the $66-million project, which was to be operating in 1988.
Then the project ran into a bureaucratic land mine.
Last week, the state Waste Management Board refused to grant final approval for the plant, a ruling that could delay construction for months while adding millions of dollars to the cost.
And if the worst fears of Long Beach officials are realized, the decision could kill the project.
The heart of the problem is a three-way tussle between the state, county officials and the City of Los Angeles.
Plan Not Updated
Although members of the state waste board say the plant is a good idea, they have refused to approve it because Los Angeles County has failed to update its waste management plan. State law requires California counties to update the plans every three years, but Los Angeles County has not submitted one since 1977. No plan, no project.
"What we have is a situation where the state Waste Management Board is holding the plant hostage," said Bill Davis, manager of Long Beach's solid waste program. "Our project has become a target of opportunity for them. They're using it to get the county to produce a waste management plan."
In February, the state waste board voted to ask Atty. Gen. John Van de Kamp to file lawsuits against Los Angeles County and nine other counties that have not updated their waste management plans.
Sherman Roodzant, chairman of the state Waste Management Board, said the county has had more than enough time to approve and submit its waste plan. In the meantime, the board cannot legally approve projects in a county that does not have such a plan, Roodzant said.
"I don't know what else we can do," Roodzant said. "But I don't think the county is going to drag its feet for more than a few months under the present circumstances."
Tug of War
But county officials and the City of Los Angeles are caught in a tug of war over the plan, which is a blueprint for the management of waste in the Los Angeles area over the next decade.
The county wants two canyons in the city of Los Angeles included in the management plan as future sites for landfills. Those two sites, Rustic-Sullivan and Mission canyons, are needed so Los Angeles will have adequate landfill space to handle the mountain of garbage produced by the city's residents, county officials maintain.
Los Angeles officials, however, have flatly refused to let the canyons be used as landfills. Mission Canyon, in particular, has long been an issue. Residents living on the slopes above the canyon, which served as a dump between 1959 and 1965, successfully battled attempts in recent years to have the area reopened as a landfill.
"The City of Los Angeles is not going to relent on those two canyons," said Councilwoman Joy Picus, who also is a member of the state Waste Management Board. "The supervisors are going to have to be the ones who relent. What's holding that trash-to-energy project up is not the city of L.A. It's the Board of Supervisors."
But county officials see it differently.
"The exclusion of Mission Canyon and Rustic-Sullivan would cause a critical shortage of landfill space in the county," said Dennis Morefield, a spokesman for county Supervisor Deane Dana. "The county's concern is that if you go ahead and submit the waste management plan without those two canyons you may find yourself short a loaf down the road."
Bill Tidemanson, director of the county Public Works Department, said it would probably be about six months before the county can submit its waste management plan to the state. Negotiations between the county and Los Angeles over the fate of the two canyons are continuing, he said.
'Up in the Air'
"I think everyone wants to see (the project) proceed," Tidemanson said Tuesday. "But at this moment, it's up in the air, I guess."
A six-month delay would add about $2 million in costs to the Long Beach project because of inflation and other factors, said Davis, the city's solid waste program manager.
In addition, a delay could push the construction schedule so far back that it would jeopardize a contract the city signed with Southern California Edison Co. to buy electricity from the plant, Davis said. The contract requires that the plant begin operation by 1988.