Mayor Tom Bradley abruptly killed the city's plan to burn trash Wednesday, leaving surprised city officials with no place to dispose of trash after 1993 and making mandatory separation of household garbage by Los Angeles residents a virtual certainty.
Bradley cited personal questions about the safety of large-scale burning in announcing his decision at a City Hall press conference. The mayor said he consulted with a wide array of experts and denied that political considerations were a key factor.
The decision to abandon the Los Angeles City Energy Recovery (LANCER) project, after a commitment of five years and $12 million, was nonetheless a stunning and unexpected victory for residents of South-Central Los Angeles and their new-found allies in other areas of Los Angeles County.
Opposition in the poor and predominantly black neighborhoods near the site of the first proposed LANCER trash-to-energy plant has spread rapidly in the last year. But with the local city councilman, Gilbert Lindsay, a steadfast supporter of the project, it was not until environmental activists and lawyers from the Westside and elsewhere joined the fight that the momentum turned in favor of the opponents.
A dejected-looking Lindsay, who until recently said the project would be good for the people in his district, agreed with Bradley Wednesday that the project should be halted.
"They are just frightened to death," Lindsay said. "I can't have my constituents unusually unhappy."
Despite the mayor's denials, the decision was viewed by many as an attempt to head off further erosion of Bradley's traditional support among environmental-minded voters on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley and even among inner-city black voters.
Stopping LANCER has become a cause celebre in those two groups lately, and some believe the controversy contributed to the defeat this month of outgoing Council President Pat Russell and of the candidate Bradley had supported in the 10th Council District, Homer Broome Jr.
In killing the project, Bradley also cuts off what could have become a major issue in the 1989 mayoral race. Plans to build two additional incinerators in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside had stirred strong citywide opposition that at least one rival, City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, had begun to tap.
"We're very gratified that, for a number of solid reasons, the mayor came out against the LANCER project," Laura Lake, leader of the Not Yet New York homeowner group, said.
Bradley's decision, apparently reached late Tuesday, came as a surprise to officials in the city's Bureau of Sanitation who several years ago won the blessing of the mayor and City Council to bet the city's future on trash burning.
"We made no recommendation to the mayor," Delwin Biagi, director of the city Bureau of Sanitation, said Wednesday. "His decision was his own."
In April, sanitation officials felt they had moved close to final approval for LANCER when a consultant--UC Berkeley professor Allen H. Smith--concluded that the health risk from the plant would be minimal. His study found, in fact, that the project would be the safest of more than 50 incinerators in American cities.
All that remained was to subject the study to public review and have it critiqued by a panel of scientists and academics that the city assembled. The panel was scheduled to issue its report next week. A separate group of experts for the state Department of Health Services and the state Air Resources Board was going to issue a report on the project later this summer.
But Bradley's announcement Wednesday cut short that review process.
"I've seen and heard enough," the mayor said. "I don't need to wait any longer."
Bradley said the sources he consulted raised numerous questions about the methods used in Smith's health study. He declined to say whose advice he considered, but he would have found no shortage of critics in the liberal and Democratic circles where the mayor often turns for counsel.
Most recently, the study of health risks was attacked as inadequate by a panel of UCLA faculty and graduate students. The Los Angeles County Medical Assn. also voted recently to oppose construction of the LANCER project.
Political Motives Seen
Bradley's action was attacked Wednesday as "an obvious political decision" by David Sokol, the president of Ogden Martin Systems, the New Jersey firm that was selected last year to build and operate the first LANCER plant.
"Today's decision, if implemented by the City Council, will do great disservice to the residents of Los Angeles," Sokol said.
The decision throws into disarray the city's system for disposing of the 5,000 tons of garbage residents throw away every day. Biagi said Wednesday that space in the city's last remaining landfills will be exhausted in 1993 and--with LANCER dead--there are no clear alternatives.