Landfill operators are different from you and me. A wheezing front-loader can disgorge seven tons of odoriferous household garbage at their feet and they see not a gloppy mess, but a chunk of future fairway or pasture.
With a look of visionary ardor, Jack Thompson gazes past the huge welter of coffee grounds, lettuce leaves, plastic bags and unidentifiable refuse on the ground in front of him at the BKK Corp. landfill in West Covina, looking toward a green hill a mile and a half to the west. "That," said the BKK operations manager, "is what this landfill can look like someday."
There stands the Industry Hills convention and recreation center, a pristine 600-acre spread of low buildings and trees, with a pair of golf courses, a sports complex and an 11-story hotel, all built on or near 20 years' worth of terraced trash.
But when he puts aside his visionary focus, Thompson has to take a close look at the stuff on the ground in front of him. Really close. This is the landfill business: a daily series of unremarkable skirmishes with mostly low-grade polluters.
To keep the hazardous wastes out, protecting the foundations of future tracts of greenery, Thompson and his staff test, smell and eyeball about 6,000 tons of new refuse every day.
You have to know exactly what it is that you're seeding the ground with, waste management experts say, because pollution can denude the environment as implacably as baldness overtaking a middle-aged man. Properly managed, a landfill like BKK can be turned into a ridge-top golf course, with majestic green fairways, or a shady park. Poorly (or illegally) run, it can become a kind of poisonous hole, spreading noxious gases and toxic liquids to surrounding areas.
"Hazardous wastes simply do not stay in place," said Angelo Bellomo, chief of the state Department of Health Service's regional toxic substance control division. "If they migrate deep enough, they'll get into underground water sources."
BKK has had its own problems with hazardous wastes. For 16 years, it was one of the nation's busiest toxic waste dumps. But in 1984, under pressure from federal and state regulatory agencies, it stopped taking chemical waste, oil sludge, contaminated soil and other kinds of hazardous wastes. The landfill site, federal inspectors discovered, did not have the kind of impermeable bedrock that had been assumed by the landfill's planners.
Still, BKK will develop the site. Sometime after 1995, when BKK stops seeding the ground with trash, construction will begin on and around the site. According to BKK Corp. President Kenneth Kazarian, plans call for luxury homes and a complex of light industrial and office buildings on the non-landfill peripheries, with a championship golf course where refuse is now being laid.
"Basically, landfill areas are turned into green space," Kazarian said.
For landfills with hazardous wastes, it's green space with some additions, added Bellomo. At the West Covina site, the company will have to maintain wells to extract gases and liquids, as well as a system to monitor the containment of all those underground toxics.
But mostly, landfill operators say, protecting landfills from hazardous wastes is just a dull routine, with minimal consequences to the public.
"People often think that hazardous waste is something you die from," says Arjun Rajaratnam, environmental control manager for BKK. "But that's not it. It's usually the things that slowly kill the fish . . . the things that, on a long-term basis, degrade the environment. It's not usually something lethal."
There are elaborate procedures in place to protect the environment from pollution at both the privately run BKK and another large San Gabriel Valley landfill, Puente Hills, which is run by the county Sanitation Districts. Both sites employ radioactivity monitors, spot searches and on-the-spot litmus tests to check for acidity. But mostly, managers of the two sites said, dozens of pairs of educated eyes probe into the mounds of garbage and refuse that are hauled in daily.
"Our people have a vested interest in watching closely what comes out of a truck," Kazarian said. "No heavy equipment operator wants to run over something in a drum that might cause a reaction."
Sometimes all the vigilance pays off. Last November, a bulldozer operator spreading out the trash at the Puente Hills landfill noticed a pile of small, unmarked canisters. They had been concealed in a larger load, said Gary Armstrong, supervisor and engineering technician at Puente Hills.
The canisters held calcium hydride, which the military uses as a source of hydrogen to launch weather balloons, he said. "Expose the stuff to moisture, and you could have an explosion. Airtight, they're fine, but busted open, they pose a problem. Not many things remain intact when they're run over by a 25-ton Cat (Caterpillar bulldozer)."