The gate at the Puente Hills landfill, just off the Pomona Freeway, opens shortly before 6 every morning to admit a steady, seemingly endless parade of trash trucks, dump trucks, long-beds, tractor-trailers and pickups, all laden with refuse.
It is a noisy procession of ugly, utilitarian vehicles, enlivened by an oddity here and there. One big refuse truck carries the slogan: "Drugs are Garbage." A tree service truck sputters forward, so overloaded with branches and greenery that it seems to be lurching toward a mechanical breakdown. A pickup truck, dwarfed by the huge trucks alongside, moves forward with a light load: a broken stool, old garden hoses and a batch of odds and ends that probably sat for years in someone's garage.
The air carries an odor that is not overwhelming, but a constant reminder that this is the largest dump in Los Angeles County.
Puente Hills is also, Sanitation District officials say, the second busiest landfill in the nation, trailing only a dump on Staten Island, N.Y., in trash volume.
It is one of four large landfills in the San Gabriel Valley, any or all of which may soon become even busier if the city of Los Angeles is forced to close its landfill at Lopez Canyon.
The city and state Waste Management Board are disputing how much trash can be deposited at that landfill, which now handles about 4,000 tons of trash a day. City officials say they could be forced to shut down the landfill within a year.
Even without the addition of Lopez Canyon trash, dumps in the San Gabriel Valley handle 26,000 tons of trash every day, more than half of the trash dumped in Los Angeles County. Landfills now reduce their hours to stay within their daily disposal limits. And as dumps continue to fill and close early, trucks must travel farther, meaning more air pollution and higher trash collection costs.
At Puente Hills, the lines of trucks are so long that it often takes them half an hour to travel up the hill from the main gate to the weigh station, even at four or five abreast. There, weighmasters at computer terminals calculate the size of the cargo and collect the fees in cash or on a credit card before directing the trucks farther up the hill to unloading areas.
Jim Grigorian, who runs a seven-truck disposal company in El Monte, says it is getting a lot more expensive to run a trash business these days, with insurance, fuel and vehicle costs all rising and dumps boosting their fees. Twelve years ago, he said, he could unload a ton of trash for 75 cents; now he pays $11.60 at Puente Hills, even more at other dumps.
Sarkis Avisyan, who drives a truck for a Gardena rubbish hauler, said: "Nobody's happy." Just three years ago, he said, he could haul eight loads of trash to Puente Hills in one day. Now, he said, because there are so many trash trucks crowding into a dwindling number of landfills, "I'm only making three or four trips a day."
Each trip takes longer because of the waits in line, and unless he gets to Puente Hills before noon, he is in danger of being turned away because the landfill will have reached its daily disposal limit.
Avisyan said his boss used to handle his trash business with two trucks and two drivers; now he needs four trucks and four drivers to get the same volume of trash to the dump.
Steve Maguin, who oversees Puente Hills and other landfills run by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts, said trash haulers are using more trucks and sending them farther because of the shortage of landfill space. Maguin said early daily closure of the Puente Hills landfill is becoming "more and more routine."
One typical day last week, for example, 1,748 trucks passed through the gates, depositing 13,200 tons of trash by 1:50 p.m. At that point, workers ran a blue flag up a pole near the weigh station to warn truck drivers approaching on the Pomona Freeway not to bother to turn off because the landfill was closed for the day.
When Puente Hills is closed, most trash trucks head for the Sanitation Districts' Spadra landfill in Pomona or the privately owned BKK landfill in West Covina.
Maguin said the Spadra landfill, which is permitted to receive 18,000 tons of trash a week, is beginning to fill up early too, partly because of the overflow from Puente Hills and partly because of the growth in the East San Gabriel Valley area. It is scheduled to close at 5 p.m., but has been shutting down at 3 or 4 in recent weeks.
The prime beneficiary of the landfill shortage has been the West Covina landfill owned by the BKK Corp.
Six years ago, when its landfill was the only hazardous waste dump open in Southern California, the BKK Corp. was said to own a money machine, grossing $23 million a year for taking in waste that no one else could handle.