MORENO VALLEY, Calif. — They are known as the badlands--260 square miles of parched, buckled earth and rocky canyons straddling the San Jacinto Fault about 15 miles east of Riverside.
In one of the myriad box canyons of this ancient home for rattlesnakes and cactus, Peter Wolfskill Anderson--a member of one of California's oldest clans, the Wolfskill family--hopes to build the latest in hazardous waste treatment facilities.
Protected on three sides by steep canyon walls and 1,500 feet above a naturally polluted ground-water table, "it is the ideal place," Anderson said, for the $60-million complex of state-of-the-art incinerators that he calls the Wolfskill Recycling Project.
Though Anderson and others in industry say his incinerator system is one of the safest known means of disposing of the ever-increasing amounts of toxic materials generated by Southern California industries, residents of the nearby community of Moreno Valley don't want it in their vicinity.
Now, battle lines are being drawn over what state officials say is one of the first attempts to build a commercial incinerator in California capable of burning both solid and liquid hazardous waste.
These officials say this is a classic instance of what has become known as the "not-in-my-backyard" syndrome.
At stake are the economic viability of Moreno Valley, millions of dollars in potential profits for Anderson's Wolfskill Recycling Technologies Inc. and the political futures of the Riverside County officials who will decide whether to approve the plan.
On one side is Anderson and his team of engineers, attorneys and public relations experts, including Burdon C. Musgrave, environment protection program director at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; Walter Ingalls, a former assemblyman and now a Riverside attorney; and Clayton Record, who was a Riverside County supervisor for eight years.
They say the facility would provide a public service by burning waste that would otherwise be buried underground, where it could possibly leak. They also say it would become a magnet for sorely needed industrial growth in the area, boost employment and make a profit for investors.
"It is the opportunity of a lifetime," Anderson said. "Yet," he conceded, "there is an aura of fear surrounding this project."
Indeed, worried about the negative effect the facility might have on nearby businesses, the Moreno Valley Chamber of Commerce circulated a petition against it in May and collected 5,000 signatures in one week. Grass-roots organizations such as the Alliance for Responsible Government are waging door-to-door campaigns to stop the project.
"Anderson has a lot of big guns on his side who keep saying this thing is so safe," Moreno Valley Councilwoman Judy Nieburger said of the proposed project that would operate just two miles east of the city limits. "It may be state of the art now, but are we going to be able to say that 20 years from now? I don't want to be a guinea pig."
Citing the most frequently heard concerns in this bedroom community of 56,000, Mayor Marshall Scott said the facility would sit 2,000 feet away from the San Jacinto Fault line, making it especially vulnerable to earthquakes, would bring more trucks laden with toxic chemicals into the area and possibly pollute the atmosphere and reduce property values.
Many Moreno Valley residents worry that the project would also bring with it some of the "big city" problems that they moved here to escape.
"We moved to Moreno Valley two years ago to get away from this kind of thing," said Cathy Chant, 27, a mother of three who has devoted hundreds of hours working against the project. "But my No. 1 concern is the safety of my children--there is always a chance of an accident occuring."
"I don't think there is a single person in the city in favor of this facility," said Scott, who received a $500 campaign contribution from a member of the Wolfskill family during the newly incorporated city's first mayoral election seven months ago. The money, he said, "obviously had not" affected his position.
"We are all against it here!" fumed custom home developer Joseph Canale, who paid $800,000 in 1981 for 63 parcels of land less than a quarter of a mile from the proposed site. If the Wolfskill project is built, he said, "I'm doomed."
His business is already hurting, he said. Two customers have backed out of sales agreements because of their potential proximity to the Wolfskill project. In one case, a West Covina couple asked to cancel their purchase of a lot 1,000 feet away from the proposed site.
"I gave them back their down payment," Canale said. "They just didn't want the property anymore."
Between these equally determined factions are the Riverside County officials who will make the final decision on whether to let Anderson go forward with the project.