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Watermaster Agrees to Sue Over Increase in Azusa Dump Size

October 08, 1989|BERKLEY HUDSON | Times Staff Writer

The nine men who oversee water rights in the San Gabriel Valley were furious and frustrated as they gathered in their El Monte meeting room to discuss the matter of a trash dump they say threatens the safety of the valley's water.

Just the day before, the State Water Resources Control Board had decided that Browning Ferris Industries--the owner of the dump and one of the nation's largest trash companies--will be allowed to greatly expand its operations in Azusa. Despite protests by local water officials and a diverse supporting cast, including the March of Dimes, Miller Brewing Co. and the Environmental Defense Fund, the board would not be swayed.

The nine men who met in El Monte Wednesday make up the board of the Main San Gabriel Valley Basin Watermaster and are in charge of the water supply for 1 million people from Alhambra to La Verne. At their meeting, they resolved to continue a fight they may have lost forever when the state board reached its decision.

Burgeoning Controversy

The two-year debate on the trash-versus-water-safety issue in the semidesert of the San Gabriel Valley has grown from a local question to one that interests people throughout California, where the subject of water has long provoked fights.

And a unanimous decision by the Watermaster on Wednesday ensured that this particular argument is not over. The local board decided to take the case to court and, as soon as possible, seek a stay of the state board's action, which allows the dump to quadruple its daily capacity of 1,500 tons.

"We can't give up our fight," said Watermaster Chairman Linn E. Magoffin.

The agency spent $300,000, on its appeal to the state board of last year's 4-3 decision of the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, which granted the expansion permit.

The dump is the least active in Los Angeles County, where an increasing population is creating a burgeoning amount of trash, while the space to put the garbage continues to diminish. The expansion means the dump will now be able to bury as much as 36 million more tons of trash at the Azusa site, which was nearing capacity under its state permit.

Browning-Ferris Industries, through its Azusa Land Reclamation Co., owns the 80-acre landfill and the adjoining 222-acre rock quarry where sand-and-gravel mining still takes place, all the while making room for more trash.

"I see this as a case where the state water board, which is charged with protecting the drinking water of the state, sold us down the river for $20 million," said Watermaster board member Al Wittig after casting his vote to appeal the decision.

The $20 million Wittig referred to was the most unusual aspect of the state board's 3-2 decision. The board predicated the expansion on a series of promises made by Browning-Ferris, including $20 million which would go to helping clean up polluted water in the San Gabriel Valley. The offer was made personally and forcefully Tuesday by William D. Ruckelshaus.

Ruckelshaus is chairman of the board of Houston-based Browning-Ferris. Besides having held other top posts in the federal government, he twice headed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Treatment Plants Offered

Ruckelshaus promised that, within 30 days, his company will place $20 million in escrow to pay for water pollution treatment plants in the San Gabriel Valley. In addition, he said the firm will put aside another $500,000 to pay for studies on implementing the project.

The San Gabriel Valley suffers from one of the worst cases of underground water pollution in the state and it is, federal officials say, perhaps the nation's most complicated to solve. It could take $800 million and 30 years to remedy, environmental officials have said.

Acknowledging the "superficial appeal" of the treatment plant offer, the Watermaster and officials of the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California had already rejected the $20-million idea when Ruckelshaus first suggested it as a compromise last month. Magoffin wrote Ruckelshaus that the proposal "ducks, rather than meets the issues."

The Azusa dump, carved out of the rocky, porous, buff-colored earth in Azusa and Irwindale, sits over a portion of what is, in effect, an underground lake covering 153 square miles. That lake is filled with moving plumes of contaminated water, polluted by industrial solvents, which seeped in perhaps decades ago.

Best Combination

Ruckelshaus said that his company is not to blame for the pollution from solvents and that the treatment proposal represented that best combination of innovation and cooperation on behalf of private industry in helping to serve a public need.

Local water experts, in making their case against expansion, conjured up images of trash merging with the water when rains are heavy and the water table rises. Debate about this has continued at length in memos and statements from state water and health experts and dump officials.

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