Ron Esquibel, a trash truck driver who deftly maneuvers his 10-wheel vehicle like a sports car, heard his boss blurt out orders over the two-way radio:
"You need to move on this one. It's getting late, you gotta rip," the voice said. "I need to get this box dumped today."
Esquibel's mission was clear. He had to race to the landfill and empty his five-ton load of construction debris before the dump reached its daily capacity Friday and closed. Twenty minutes later, he arrived from Tarzana at the entrance of the Calabasas Landfill.
But as he moved forward, the gate with a red-lettered "closed" sign rolled shut.
For Esquibel of Big Box Service Disposal in Canoga Park and dozens of other private trash haulers in the San Fernando Valley, the trip to the dump became a more complicated, costly and frustrating business last week as haulers felt another sharp pinch in the region's worsening trash problems.
A 77% reduction in the amount of trash accepted each day at Sunshine Canyon Landfill above Granada Hills meant that disposal firms, primarily in the Valley area, were forced to find new burial grounds for about 2,000 tons of trash a day. The reduction came after Los Angeles city officials denied Browning-Ferris Industries, the landfill's operators, permission to expand.
While politicians debate where to put the next direly needed dump, while huge waste companies wage sophisticated lobbying campaigns to win approval for new landfills and expansions for old ones, and while homeowners gather forces to prevent new dumps near their back yards, small haulers like Esquibel at Big Box Service Disposal fear that they won't be able to obey their bosses' orders and empty their trash trucks.
"I worry whether I can make it to the dump before it closes. I wait in line only to be turned away," Esquibel said. "It's usually an hour's drive to the next dump and I never know whether that one will be open. It's a lot of wasted time, a lot of frustration."
"There is no question that the overall waste picture has been serious for quite some time, but the latest closure has magnified everything," said Richard Paxman, president of both TOPAX Waste Management in Sun Valley and the 200-member Greater Los Angeles Solid Waste Management Assn. "We all realize how political the situation is. But it is something we in the business are forced to live with."
Most affected are the small trash firms that operate five or six big-rig trucks and drop off rubbish containers for home renovation or landscaping projects, construction sites, or apartment complex and business garbage.
Unable to qualify for volume discounts from dump operators and lacking extra trucks to cover for those hung up at the landfill, the haulers said they quickly felt the pressure last week when Los Angeles County's already stretched waste system was pushed even further.
Stephen R. Maguin, the top engineer in the county's Solid Waste Management Department, said the quick ripple effect felt last week demonstrated that the county's system was barely managing the 45,000 tons of garbage generated each day.
"In the short term, the system can absorb it, but racing to the landfill is not a long-term solution," Maguin said.
There are five landfills in the Valley area. Three are privately owned, one is operated by the county and the other exclusively takes in Los Angeles city trash. BFI operates the Sunshine Canyon Landfill but, like Bradley in Sun Valley and Chiquita near Val Verde, allows other private haulers to dump there for a price. Another alternative for private haulers, as well as homeowners getting rid of an occasional pickup truck load, is the county-operated Calabasas Landfill. The city facility is Lopez Canyon Landfill.
By late last week, trash truck operators raced to reach Sunshine, Chiquita or Calabasas early in the morning to ensure that their loads would be emptied. At Calabasas, the scramble prompted hourlong waits at the gate and caused it and Sunshine to shut down early.
In the Valley, the cost of renting a bin to dispose of old shingles or other construction debris, for example, suddenly skyrocketed by as much as $100 overnight. Prices rose because Sunshine changed its fees for heavy loads, and trucks stymied by the daily dumping limit there were diverted to more costly dumps elsewhere.
In the offices of hauling firms, radio dispatchers became traffic controllers, diverting garbage-laden trucks to open landfills and advising drivers of freeway traffic conditions that could prevent them from reaching the landfill in time.
"After 10 in the morning, if the trucks aren't empty I start to worry," said Frank McCombs, owner of Roll-Off Services Inc. in Woodland Hills. "I start calling to dumps to see if they are still open, calling the drivers to tell them where to go."