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Trash Crash Didn't Materialize, but Debate Remains : Waste disposal: Sanitation officials say the day of reckoning has been delayed by the recession. Dump opponents say the threat was exaggerated to get more landfills.


MOUNTAINS — Although pummeled by riots and drenched by floods, there is one calamity Los Angeles has managed to avoid this year.

The "trash crisis" is still a no-show. Its malodorous arrival--predicted to occur as early as 1991--has been delayed by the recession, recycling, and, perhaps, faulty assumptions that made the situation seem a bit worse than it was.

Dump opponents, who had claimed the "crisis" was invented to grease the way for new landfills, say they have been vindicated.

Undaunted, sanitation officials say the threat is far from over. In a revised estimate, they have moved the possible timing of the trash system's crash to December of 1993--when permits for the Puente Hills Landfill, the county's largest, are due to expire.

"I have mixed emotions" about the system holding up, said Steve Maguin, chief of solid waste management for the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts. "I'm glad we don't have a public health crisis, thanks to the recession. On the other hand, I'm disappointed that we haven't made any substantial progress" toward adding new landfill capacity.

Now, as before, sanitation officials say this is how the day of reckoning will arrive: Old landfills close without being replaced, increasing bottlenecks at remaining dumps. Trash haulers, languishing in ever-longer lines, eventually must wait so long to dump their loads that they miss their appointed rounds.

Suddenly, Monday's trash will be sitting around until Tuesday, and Tuesday's until Wednesday or Thursday. Residents then face a health menace--complete with rats and flies and the smell of garbage rotting in the streets.

In a well-publicized report in August, 1990, the sanitation districts and county Department of Public Works presented what they called a "Time-to-Crisis Analysis." The report's very name sounded the alarm.

The report said the crisis could hit by 1991 unless landfills whose permits were about to expire were allowed to expand.

But the warning wasn't heeded--at least not completely.

Although the largest of the dumps facing closure--the Sunshine Canyon Landfill above Granada Hills--was granted a new permit, it has been closed for nearly a year by a lawsuit contesting its expansion. Another key dump--the Azusa Western Landfill in the San Gabriel Valley--was closed unexpectedly last year by a legal challenge involving ground water protection.

The network of big public and private landfills in Los Angeles County had shrunk from 10 to eight. According to the county agencies' gloomy analysis, disaster should have struck.

Instead, the system is getting by, thanks to declining volumes of trash and greater reliance on some of the remaining dumps. The weak economy, which has cut consumer buying and business activity, is one reason there is less trash.

"We've amazed ourselves at how well we've weathered what we thought was going to be a crash, and it's got to do with a combination of recycling and recession," said Joe Haworth, a spokesman for the sanitation districts.

Despite rapid population growth, landfill dumping in the county is about 10% below the level of five years ago--a trend sanitation officials never expected.

"We've seen substantial reductions in our waste flow" due mainly to the economic downturn, Maguin said. The slumping construction industry, usually a big waste producer, "is sucking air these days," he said.

Recycling also has relieved pressure on the dumps. Although officials had factored some recycling into their analysis, "there was some pessimism (about) how fast people would be willing to recycle," said Bill George, recycling coordinator for the sanitation districts.

Recycling is no longer just a way for Girl Scout troops to raise a few bucks. Responding to a state law requiring cuts in landfill dumping, at least 54 of the county's 89 cities have launched curbside recycling programs, which also serve residents of unincorporated areas. Government agencies and businesses increasingly are taking up recycling in a big way.

For example, the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks annually recycles about 70,000 of the 108,000 tons of waste from its 350 parks and 13 golf courses, mostly by leaving grass clippings on the ground to cut disposal and watering costs.

Waste Management Inc., operator of the Bradley West Landfill in Sun Valley, is diverting about 80 tons of wood waste per day--much of it to a plant in the Central Valley where it is used as boiler fuel. And the sanitation districts--which run four big landfills--are recycling about 400 tons per day of tree trimmings and other green waste, officials with the districts say.

But some critics say there is another reason the dire forecast has failed to materialize: It was exaggerated for effect.

"They are trying to say the garbage crisis is worse than it is" to justify new dumps, said Marsha McLean, an opponent of the proposed Elsmere Canyon landfill east of the city of Santa Clarita.

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