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Top of the Heap : A Desert Garbage Dump That Someday Would Rise Up 30 Stories Is Just One of the Competitors in the Race to Get L.A.'s Trash

December 25, 1995|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GLAMIS, Calif. — Hang on, trash fans, the nation's most spectacular garbage dump is being planned for this sandy, rocky, remote spot in the eastern Imperial Valley.

The dimensions are daunting: a garbage pile 450 feet tall, three miles long, and up to 1 1/2 miles wide.

By some reckonings it would be the most expansive man-made object in the world, covering nearly 3,000 acres, or, if you prefer, more than 6,800 football fields--including the end zones. The pile and its rock covering would be as high as a modern 30-story building.

Garbage would arrive daily by train from Los Angeles County 200 miles away. Even at 20,000 tons each day, it would take a century for the big dump to reach its full height with 600 million tons of garbage.

"I can feel it," said Robert Filler, the mining engineer who is general manager of what is called the Mesquite Regional Landfill. "It's just a matter of time."

This proposed mega-monument to trash is testament to a high-stakes competition to become the first long-range repository for Los Angeles County garbage, the mother lode of garbage production.

So far, Mesquite is demonstrably ahead of its two big-business competitors--one at Bristol Dry Lake near Amboy in San Bernardino County, and one at the abandoned Eagle Mountain iron ore mine in Riverside County.

The Amboy project faces a citizens' ballot initiative and lacks final political approval. Eagle Mountain was knocked for a loop when it lost an environmental lawsuit last year.

Imperial County politicians, sensing millions of dollars in tax revenue, are big believers in the Mesquite project, and the regulatory agencies are falling into line. Filler's bosses are dreaming of mid-1997 for the arrival of the first trash train.

There are nonbelievers, however. A lawsuit has been filed by the Sierra Club and Desert Citizens Against Pollution.

"I hate to see the desert trashed," said Lee Ann Renfro, an El Centro resident and Sierra Club member.

A spur track from the Southern Pacific line would take the sealed truck trailers with their loads of garbage to a site adjacent to the state's second-largest open-pit gold mine. The trash would be covered daily by tons of rock left from the mining.

The lawsuit asserts that the Mesquite planners have dreadfully underestimated the negative impact on air quality, traffic and noise levels and the possibility that fruit flies and whiteflies could hitchhike from Los Angeles and devastate the valley's agricultural economy.

The lawsuit questions whether the polyethylene liner beneath the garbage dump will prove as sturdy as Mesquite asserts, the critics worrying that it will leak, permitting the toxic soup called "leachate" that accumulates at the bottom of garbage piles to seep into the ground water.

And finally there is the desert tortoise, the official California state reptile, an endangered and federally protected species. The lawsuit says noise from trash trains could make it impossible for tortoises to communicate.

But Filler says the three corporate partners in the Mesquite project--Gold Fields Mining Corp. (which formerly ran the adjacent gold mine), Southern Pacific Environmental Systems, and Western Waste Industries (one of L.A. County's largest garbage haulers)--anticipated a legal challenge and are prepared to meet it.

"It goes with the territory," Filler said.

He notes that the partners are accustomed to spending millions on projects before seeing one dollar in return. The project, whose management arm is called Arid Operation Inc., has cost $14 million in planning and development and will probably cost an additional $30 million before any trash arrives, he said.

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The legal battle in Imperial County Superior Court deals with scientific questions: Could the trash mountain survive an earthquake? What would happen if one of the trains derailed in the Coachella Valley? But it also involves a clash of philosophies.

To those opposed to the project, the idea of an immense landfill with virtually limitless capacity will encourage wasteful habits and redundant packaging (paper is the main disposable in any landfill) and a throwaway society. The idea of recycling and conservation, they warn, will fly out the window faster than a candy wrapper at 65 mph.

"The garbage that will fill up that landfill now exists as trees," said Jane Williams, a leader in Desert Citizens Against Pollution.

To the boosters, however, the idea of a mega-landfill in a remote location seems an ideal response to the NIMBY reality that whenever a landfill is suggested near a populated area, the homeowners go ballistic. Seattle is now shipping its garbage by rail to Eastern Oregon.

"We can solve an entity's disposal problems for 100 years," said Rich Widrig, an official with Western Waste. "If politicians are sick and tired of revisiting the landfill issue, you can put the issue to rest once and for all by coming to our site."

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