WEST COVINA — In many ways, the April 8 election in which two incumbents and one challenger are vying for two seats on the City Council resembles a re-run of the 1984 election in which the BKK landfill was the most prominent issue.
This year, three-time challenger Tom Walsh hopes to unseat either Robert Bacon or Chester A. Shearer by accusing them of not being aggressive enough in working to completely close down the landfill.
Walsh, a 54-year-old telephone company executive, said recent evidence that pollution is seeping into the ground water beyond the landfill means the city must move to immediately shut down the facility.
The state Regional Water Quality Control Board and the state Department of Health have ordered BKK Corp., the landfill's operators, to clean up the chemically polluted ground water that has spread beyond the dump.
No Immediate Jeopardy
Although underground sources of water near the dump are not in immediate jeopardy, the agencies say the pollution has the potential of spreading to the San Gabriel Valley's largest aquifer, underground strata of water-bearing sand and gravel called the San Gabriel Basin. BKK's operators have agreed to dig six test wells outside of the landfill to monitor the situation.
Bacon, 57, a West Covina-based attorney, and Shearer, 52, a 30-year Caltrans civil engineer, said that although the landfill still poses environmental problems for the city, residents no longer view it as their chief concern because the city has already acted effectively to protect them.
"The conditions are quite different now," said Shearer, who is seeking his fifth term. "The landfill has been closed to the disposal of toxic materials" and "we have signed a memorandum of understanding (with BKK), which is basically a contract in which the operators are promising" to close the landfill to all dumping in nine years.
The two incumbents take much of the credit for these achievements. They point to a civil lawsuit filed by the city in 1984 against BKK Corp. that led the Torrance-based firm to agree to a plan that closed the dump to toxic waste disposal last year and will close the entire operation by 1995.
Similar to 1984
Although this year's race is similar to 1984's, there is a major difference in the level of intensity and controversy surrounding the election.
"This campaign has not been as heated as the last one," said Steve Hamilton, Bacon's campaign chairman. "You can go around our city and you don't see any (posters) or the door-to-door solicitations" by the candidates, Hamilton said.
One reason for the lower level of political activity, the candidates agree, is the fact that there there are only three people running. In 1984, 11 candidates sought three seats on the council, resulting in a much more visible election.
Another is that BKK Corp. has not set up a political action committee to support candidates as it did in 1984.
That year, BKK spent $75,000 to independently mount a telephone and pamphlet campaign in support of six candidates. Although three of the six candidates endorsed by BKK won, the winners said the BKK money did not influence the outcome of the election or their stands on the landfill issue.
But those who lost, including Walsh, charged that BKK had bought the election.
So far, Walsh said, he has seen no evidence that BKK has become involved in this year's race. However, he fears that BKK may become involved at the last minute, and disagrees with the contention of BKK spokesman Ron Gestalum that the landfill is no longer an issue.
Walsh said that although BKK has taken steps to reduce the emission of toxic gases from the dump by installing a methane gas recovery system, the city has failed to adequately address the newer ground water pollution threat posed by the landfill.
He says the city's failure to completely shut down the landfill is causing the non-toxic material still being dumped on the landfill to put pressure on the liquid toxic waste deep inside the dump, forcing it into ground water that migrates beyond the landfill.
But Shearer said Walsh is ignoring the fact that matters pertaining to the landfill are now in the hands of the court, not the city.
'Judge Has Taken Over'
"The judge has taken over," he said of the suit filed in Los Angeles Superior Court by the city in 1984 in an effort to shut down the landfill and prevent further environmental problems.
"West Covina is not the agency charged with the protection of the ground water, the air. . . . There are state agencies that have that responsibility."
Like Shearer, Bacon, who founded the city's Legal Aid chapter, said he is running on his record and a variety of other issues, including the city's economic revitalization.
But Walsh has criticized both incumbents for their parts in handling the city's numerous redevelopment projects, particularly the $157-million Atrium hotel and office project, which he claims has been delayed six years because of bad planning.