A longstanding effort by the county to turn three verdant canyons on the Westside into a massive landfill has taken a turn that observers say could signal trouble for the controversial plan.
For the first time, the county has begun meeting with Los Angeles city officials to discuss other possible sites for a landfill that the county has long insisted be located in the canyons north of Brentwood.
Led by Supervisor Pete Schabarum, the county had steadfastly maintained that the city must accept its share of garbage inside the city limits by allowing dumping in Mission, Rustic and Sullivan canyons. However, the City Council refused in 1977, and again in 1981, to grant the county a permit to reopen Mission Canyon, which was used as a landfill in the 1960s.
Schabarum retaliated against the City Council in 1984, persuading the supervisors to refuse to approve the state-mandated Solid Waste Management Plan, without which the city would have been unable to proceed with any new waste-disposal projects. Eventually, the county abandoned that strategy but not before incurring the anger of city officials.
In recent weeks, the county has adopted a more conciliatory approach.
To Meet With City
Officials from the county counsel's office, the chief administrative office and the Sanitation Districts agreed to meet with the city to attempt to iron out their differences.
As a result, county sanitation officials are studying a proposal by the city to jointly operate a new landfill, possibly at Ellsmere Canyon on the northern edge of the San Fernando Valley.
Moreover, last Tuesday the county Board of Supervisors indefinitely shelved a Schabarum-backed plan to spend $1.2 million to study the environmental effects of filling Mission, Rustic and Sullivan canyons with municipal garbage.
Schabarum's longtime ally, Supervisor Deane Dana, questioned whether the money would be wasted since the City Council repeatedly has made it clear it will not give the county a landfill permit for the canyons. Although the canyons are owned by the county, they are inside the city limits and under the jurisdiction of the City Council.
"The time has come when we meed more light and less heat on this subject," Dana told the board.
Dana successfully argued that the county delay any decision on the $1.2-million study. The board instead ordered its staff to report on the "economic trade-offs" that would be made if a landfill were to be opened in a remote site such as Ellsmere Canyon.
Dana's move was hailed by environmentalists, who hotly oppose landfills in the three Westside canyons, which are next to Topanga State Park and are part of the proposed Santa Monica Mountains national parklands area.
"There's really been a ground shift here," said Joseph Edmiston, executive director of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, a quasi-governmental agency that is buying acreage for the parklands.
"I think the increased leadership from Deane Dana on this issue, as we saw Tuesday, is the key to this dramatic change we're seeing," Edmiston said.
One county official, who asked not to be named, said Schabarum's hardball approach "hasn't gotten results with the city, and I think everyone recognizes that."
The county and city are grappling with an impending trash crisis because several existing landfills are expected to fill up and be closed in the next few years.
Although the city dumps two-thirds of its trash in the city-owned Lopez Canyon Landfill near San Fernando, it must rely upon several county-owned and private landfills outside the city limits to dump the remainder of its garbage.
Schabarum reminded the board Tuesday that the county faces its own problems in finding a way to dispose of trash in the future. "Where is all that refuse from Los Angeles going to go when these landfills close down?" he said.
Mark Volmert, an aide to Schabarum, said that among sanitation experts, "Mission Canyon is just about everyone's first choice for a landfill" because it is near the city and is already owned by the county Sanitation Districts.
"We're not talking about forcing somebody to take garbage and ignoring the environmental consequences--that's insane," he said. "What we're saying is they've got to take their own fair share."
However, Councilman Marvin Braude, who has spearheaded the fight to save Mission, Rustic and Sullivan canyons for parklands, said it is "ridiculous for the county to be behaving as if we were some kind of foreign power."
Braude said the county's persistent claim that landfills can work in an urban setting "is obsolete."
"The only place you can put landfills are in remote areas removed from urban life, Braude said. "People and events have made that very clear."
Judy Sobject, a chief administrative analyst with the city, said her staff is seeking a city-county agreement to operate a landfill and that a site must be selected within the year.
"The city is firmly committed to this idea, and we are trying to communicate that to the county," Sobject said.
Whatever the outcome of the current talks, Peter Ireland, an aide to Dana, said Dana intends to continue playing a major role in the relations between the city and county.
"The most healthy thing about this is that there has finally been an attempt to establish a dialogue between the parties involved," Ireland said.
"I think Deane believes this is going to entail some serious sit-down discussions and compromise between the city and county and the Sanitation Districts."