Orange County administrators hope to import garbage from neighboring counties to raise cash for a bankruptcy recovery plan, but the proposal must first survive something tougher than angry residents: a highly competitive market.
"Certainly Orange County landfills would be closer, so there would be lower transportation costs," said Gaye Soroka, director of government affairs for Waste Management of North County in Oceanside. "But the question is, would the dumping fee be competitive?"
Waste Management of North County is one of several haulers in northern San Diego County to send rubbish to Los Angeles County, where landfill dumping fees are sometimes as low as one-third those at San Diego County-run landfills.
But Soroka said the dumping fees at Los Angeles County landfills are also lower than a $30-per-ton charge being proposed by Orange County officials for imported trash to its three landfills near Brea, Irvine and San Juan Capistrano. Los Angeles County facilities range from $16 per ton to about $29 a ton, Soroka said.
Orange County officials might be willing to drop their fees for garbage importers. The county sent a "request for proposals" to about 100 trash firms in San Diego and Los Angeles counties earlier this month.
Detailed proposals are not due back until May 31. County officials say they don't yet know how enthusiastic the response will be.
"We've invited people to submit alternatives," said Cymantha Atkinson, a spokeswoman for Orange County's Integrated Waste Management Department.
Atkinson said out-of-county trash firms that show an interest in hauling to Orange County at the import "base rate" of $30 per ton will get first crack, if the importation plan is approved later this year by the Board of Supervisors.
Bob Coyle, division president for Waste Management of Orange County, said the rate of $30 per ton might be low enough to attract some San Diego County haulers but probably none from Los Angeles County.
"I don't think they'll get any trash out of Los Angeles County, simply because of price. It is a competitive industry up there," Coyle said.
Under the Orange County trash importation plan, the county's three landfills would boost their total volume from 10,000 tons per day to as much as 16,000 tons, which would raise about $55 million a year.
The plan has encountered most of its opposition in San Juan Capistrano, where the route leading to the Prima Deshecha Landfill (Ortega Highway) narrows to two lanes at one point and is adjacent to residential neighborhoods. The county plan calls for the landfill capacity to increase from about 1,000 tons of trash daily to 4,000 tons a day.
The Olinda Landfill near Brea receives about 4,600 tons per day and could go to 6,000 tons daily under the proposal. The Bowerman Landfill near Irvine gets about 4,200 tons per day and could receive 5,800 tons under the new plan.
San Juan Capistrano city officials staged a protest on Ortega Highway last week and have hinted they might challenge legislation that would exempt the county from a state environmental review when importing garbage.
"Right now, the county is moving very quickly and somewhat in an emergency fashion," City Manager George Scarborough said. "Often, wise decisions don't come from such monetarily driven decisions. They clearly can make a number of discretionary decisions. We may or may not have the legal ability to prevent some things from going forward."
Brea City Manager Frank Benest said residents there are worried as well.
"We don't want additional trash coming into the landfill," Benest said. "Nobody does. Our concern is that the county is going to do it anyway and we want to minimize the impacts."
Some city officials in Orange County said they are beginning to question the economic viability of the importation plan.
"I think it might be a little bit optimistic," Irvine City Councilman Greg Smith said. "I'd like some more analysis to see if this is even feasible."
Smith said that Los Angeles County haulers probably will continue to drop loads at landfills there that have lower fees.
But Atkinson said Orange County can offer landfills with longer life spans. She said haulers look for long-term reliability to keep costs down and plan for the future.
Of the county's three facilities, the 1,530-acre Prima Deshecha Landfill has the most capacity. It is not expected to reach that level until 2060.
The 678-acre Olinda Landfill will close in 2013, according to an agreement with the city of Brea.
Under a county expansion plan, the Bowerman Landfill would fill up by 2040.
Importing extra trash for 25 years would trim 16 years of life off the county's landfills, Atkinson said, but exactly where and when hasn't been calculated because it would depend on which landfill received the most imported trash.
Soroka said that Orange County's plan of importing as much as 6,000 tons of trash per day from Los Angeles and San Diego counties seemed to be a "fairly aggressive number." She said that only about 1,000 tons of trash is sent out of San Diego County each day.
Still, Soroka added: "I think we have to look at Orange County seriously. They do have the capacity and depending on what the pricing is, it could be more competitive."
Whether the plan succeeds remains to be seen.
"It's a market issue," Benest said. "The county can't control the market."