During a long, strange Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors hearing Tuesday, spectators were treated to a defense of housewives, activists wearing face paint, and intense opposition to the expansion of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill.
In the end, the board voted 4 to 0 to approve a controversial landfill expansion agreement between Laidlaw Waste Management Inc. and the Val Verde Civic Assn. that allows the Santa Clarita Valley dump to remain open until 2019 in return for about $280,000 each year for community improvements and other concessions.
Though Laidlaw must still win approval of the technical details and get permits from several state and local agencies, the board's approval on Tuesday was the project's final significant hurdle.
"We are ecstatic," exclaimed Laidlaw consultant Charles Leonard after the vote. "This demonstrates how the public hearing process can address everybody's needs."
But members of the anti-landfill group LACH--which was left out of settlement negotiations--said they would continue to oppose the dump, which they claim pollutes the environment and causes illnesses.
"The life of the community is in your hands," Victoria Estrada told the board. "Perhaps you think it funny that we would invite you to our homes in Val Verde. But it would give you the opportunity to live as we are living. And smell the wonderful odor that makes you want to throw up. It's not fair to treat us like guinea pigs."
About 15 LACH members, including children, came to the meeting with one side of their faces painted black and white.
"This is to symbolize life and death," LACH member Maria Vega told supervisors, "and the power of life and death you have over us."
LACH, the Spanish abbreviation for Lucha Ambiental de la Communidad Hispana (Environmental Struggle of the Hispanic Community) is considering filing a lawsuit to block the expansion.
The Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Clean Water Action said it will probably join a lawsuit on the grounds that the project's environmental review process was not conducted properly.
County officials charged with inspecting Chiquita have acknowledged that while Laidlaw has occasionally violated the conditions of its current operating permit, the company has quickly corrected the problems.
The permit for the dump will expire in November without a new operating agreement.
Tuesday's meeting came one day after the board of the town's most prominent citizen group, the Val Verde Civic Assn., ended three years of vocal resistance to the expansion by signing an agreement with Laidlaw that allows the dump to increase in capacity from 3 million to 23 million tons over 22 years.
In return, Laidlaw agreed not to dump chemically treated human waste there, to reduce the hours it operates, to plant trees and to provide between $250,000 and $280,000 to the community if the dump collects 250,000 tons of trash each year.
The agreement led to a split between the civic association and LACH, which had joined in fighting the dump in the ethnically diverse, predominately poor town.
On Tuesday, county supervisors got a close-up view of a small town embroiled in dissension.
Members of the Val Verde Civic Assn. even disagreed whether the group's agreement had been unanimous.
"This arrangement is a sellout," said Lewis Berti, secretary of the association. "It represents the vote of three board members, it doesn't represent the community."
Last week, Berti told The Times he had supported the decision.
Ruth Griffin, president of the group, told the board that the vote had been unanimous.
"The civic association is satisfied with this agreement," she testified. "It addresses our concerns."
But Berti questioned whether it was possible for Griffin and Merry Farmer, president of Citizens Against Chiquita Canyon Landfill, to have read the hundreds of pages of technical reports covering the expansion.
At one point, he called the two "housewives."
"Many of the people who are the best informed about issues are housewives," Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke pointed out. "I'd like you to meet some of them sometime."
Audience members clapped.
Ken Emerald, a postal workers' union official who represents most of the 2,000 workers in the sprawling new Santa Clarita post office, said the nearby dump had affected the health of his letter carriers.
"Since we moved to the Santa Clarita Valley, there has been a dramatic increase in sick calls," Emerald said. "If this landfill goes through, postal workers will be opposed, and you don't want 2,000 angry postal workers."
The supervisors smiled thinly.
Supervisor Gloria Molina said she was troubled by the annual payments to the civic association by Laidlaw and the Newhall Land & Farming Co., which owns the landfill property.
"I am concerned about the $250,000 because one could characterize it as buying off the organization . . . which I'm sure is not the case," Molina said.
"I swear to God this was never about money, never about the money," Griffin told the supervisors.
The board approved the dump expansion with the provision that a community group selected by Supervisor Mike Antonovich will determine how the funds will be spent.
The nearly three-hour meeting was summed up in comments to the board by Edwin Seth Brown, who runs a health clinic in Val Verde.
"As you can see by this room, all is not well in the community of Val Verde," he said.