BLYTHE — Some residents hope that one man's trash turns out to be this depressed desert community's newest treasure.
The trash would be hauled about 200 miles by rail from the San Gabriel Valley and either recycled or burned, providing new industry and employment in Blythe.
Such an idea might provide at least a partial answer to the question of what to do with the 45,000 tons of trash generated every day by Los Angeles County.
It could also prove a boon for a town so eager for jobs and growth that its residents held a pro-prison parade and sent a delegation to Sacramento last year to plead with the state to build a prison nearby.
Blythe's campaign was successful, and the medium-security facility is now under construction in the Chuckwalla Valley, 19 miles west of the city. When completed in two years, it will employ 700 workers.
Even some state waste managment officials have expressed tentative interest in the trash plan.
Although the plan is only in its formative stages and has several outspoken opponents, the Blythe City Council recently allotted $1,000 to help pay for a study to determine if it is feasible to import trash to be burned as fuel by industrial plants that would be built near the city.
"The total council isn't sold on the idea, but I think for a town like this it can be an excellent economic development program," said Councilman Robert I. Means.
"This town needs some jobs."
Mayor Bill Martindale said Blythe, which sits along Interstate 10 just west of the Colorado River border with Arizona, has lost two-thirds of its farm jobs since the 1960s because of automation and the decline of small farms. Its mining industry "has basically died out," he said, leaving the city heavily dependent on tourists.
The town is now mainly a food and gas stop for motorists and a supply base for boat owners and water skiers headed for camps and resorts along the Colorado River about a mile away.
The mayor, an asthmatic who moved with his family to Blythe as a child, said youngsters growing up in Blythe face such a bleak economic future--no job or a low-paying job--that most move away.
"That's the reason so many people were happy to see the possibility of a prison," he said. "You're talking about something that can employ people with a decent-paying job and decent benefits."
The trash plan originated with a private company seeking an alternative to proposals to build waste-to-energy plants in the San Gabriel Valley, where residents have charged that the plants could endanger health by releasing toxic chemicals and increasing smog.
Opposition to such plants caused the backers of one proposed waste-to-energy facility in Irwindale to withdraw plans for an incinerator that would burn 3,000 tons of trash a day and to start planning a smaller facility.
Bruce Milne, vice president of CMRR Inc., which had been hired by opponents of the Irwindale plant to come up with alternatives to waste-to-energy plants, said his firm suggested to officials of San Gabriel Valley cities that trash be hauled to the desert by rail. Milne said that it is cheaper to haul trash long distances by rail and that railroads would be willing to handle the business.
But officials doubted that desert communities would accept the trash.
Milne then began canvassing the desert for areas that might see the economic gains from trash disposal. He found Blythe.
Since then, other proposals to haul trash to remote areas by rail have emerged, triggering statewide interest. Both the state Waste Management Board and the Southern California Assn. of Governments are proposing studies to test the feasibility of the concept.
Not everyone is sold on the idea, even in job-hungry Blythe.
Teddy Dekens, a Blythe farmer, said he doesn't want Los Angeles' trash in Blythe.
Dekens said the idea "stinks."
But his partner in the Best Hay Co., Alan Bebout, said the plan might yield financial benefits. "If somebody's going to make a bunch of money from it," Bebout said, "it's fine . . . as long as I get my share."
Standing behind a counter in his auto parts store and talking over the whirr of fans on a 100-degree day, Mayor Martindale explained why he likes living in Blythe.
"We have a lot of open space, recreation, the river, the desert," he said. "We have a lot of potential around here."
But the town also has its drawbacks, including scorching summers (average July high: 108 degrees), and the lowest average family income in Riverside County ($17,000 a year).
Councilman Means, who owns a real estate office, said he wants Blythe to retain its rural flavor. But he said the population in the area (7,766 in Blythe and another 6,000 in outlying regions) is too small to attract upscale shops and restaurants.
"You can't afford to build a nice restaurant," he said. "That holds true of department stores as well. . . . You almost have to go out of town to get any culture or anything."
'Difficult to Go Anyplace'