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Filling a Pit at the Expense of Risking People's Health : Waste: Riverside supervisors say yes to L.A.'s trash because the price is right. But the best intentions and state-of-the-art technology won't protect us.

October 25, 1992|David Glidden | David Glidden is a professor of philosophy at UC Riverside

RIVERSIDE — Regional garbage dumps are big money makers. Gross profit margins of 50% a year are common, once the locals are bought off cheaply with "host fees." One or two bucks a ton of trash is paid out to them, while customers are charged $25 a ton to dump their garbage in the countryside. The bigger the pit, the wider the profit margin. So, waste-management corporations scour rural areas and Indian lands looking for bargain-basement dump sites not too far from major cities.

Mine Reclamation Corp., in conjunction with Browning-Ferris, one of America's biggest dumpsters, is working with Los Angeles on a plan to ship the city's trash by train and truck to eastern Riverside County, near Desert Center and Joshua Tree National Monument. They have their eye on Eagle Mountain, an abandoned pit mine. Mine Reclamation claims it will take 100 years to fill the pit, at 20,000 tons of trash a day, thus making Eagle Mountain the mother of all dump sites.

The Riverside County supervisors held hearings on the proposal, which promises Riverside County $24 million a year, free and clear. Poverty-stricken desert residents living near the pit were tempted by the money and the jobs the dump might bring. Riversiders in western parts of the county were suspicious. Dumping garbage in the desert might seem expedient, but in Southern California the desert has a habit of turning into cities. The Riverside County planning commission voted 4 to 1 against it. On Oct. 6, the county supervisors narrowly approved the deal, 3 to 2. Money made them do it.

Los Angeles has already sent Riverside enough pollution to cause endemic lung problems in children, asthma, emphysema, cancers and eye infections. The price for living on the border of Los Angeles has already proved excessive, before throwing garbage into the equation, especially when you compare today's Riverside with the orange groves of the past. Riverside was once a vacation destination. Too many Southern Californians now regard it as the pits.

Backers of Eagle Mountain assure the county nothing bad will happen, thanks to state-of-the-art technology and their best intentions. But Riversiders can't forget Stringfellow Acid Pits, which the state of California certified as safe years before it was declared one of the most hazardous civilian dump sites in the nation. At Norton Air Force Base nearby, the federal government claimed its dump site there was nominal, until plumes of chemicals and heavy metals spread, threatening the artesian water source that supplies more than half a million people in San Bernardino and Riverside.

Since state and federal experts proved so wrong so often, it's hard to trust a profit-making company that probably won't be around next century, when the dump is filled or leaking and possibly surrounded by newly arrived urban refugees. It's far more certain there will be cities near Eagle Mountain than the proposed dump won't leak into the aquifer. Burying the trash won't help an urban world, with its complex chemicals and metals used in manufacturing and packaging. Out of sight and out of mind make bad policy.

The fact is, dumping trash into a pit is about as low-tech as you can get. It's a caveman strategy. But as long as it is the cheapest alternative around, mounds of trash will pile up, until long-term costs set in. By then, the damage to the aquifer is done, and those who did the deed have gone off to their reward. As long as dumps remain the favored strategy, there will be little incentive to recycle or to incinerate what cannot be used again. Properly scrubbed and monitored incineration could at least produce electricity, whereas a landfill only fills a pit.

Justice is not served with payoffs for rural citizens, bribing them to take a chance with health and happiness to satisfy the needs of the more urbane and well-to-do. Even to multiply the tipping fee paid to the county by 10 times, or 100 times, won't obliterate the consequences of letting trash rot there in the ground. Exchanging dollars to the poor to bear environmental risk others would refuse ought to run against our common sense of decency.

It's a question of fairness. The short-term interests of the city ought to never override the inalienable rights of the few, even if they're rural poor. The opportunity, instead, exists for Los Angeles to demonstrate how it can manage its own waste without having to export it to its neighbors. That would be the moral thing to do, respecting the land we share with future generations. Los Angeles has yet to prove faithful to the neighbors it abuses.

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