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FRIDAY REPORT / An in-depth look at people and policies
shaping Southern California

Following the Trash

The routes of all the garbage trucks that crisscross Southern California may seem to be a chaotic tangle. But the waste stream, like any other, flows downhill--toward the cheapest destination.


The sodden diapers and moldy bread of Rancho Cucamonga are a long way from home. When garbage from this San Bernardino County suburb finally sinks into a landfill, it's at a dump about 25 miles away in Orange County.

In Los Angeles County, meanwhile, one of the biggest landfills in Southern California takes in trash from dozens of surrounding cities--except for L.A., whose residential refuse has long been banned from the gargantuan Puente Hills Landfill near Whittier.

Following the twists and turns of local garbage disposal can be downright dizzying. An armada of garbage trucks crisscrosses the Southland six days a week, hauling almost 20 million smelly tons per year to about 50 burial grounds throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.

"It may seem, to the naked eye, that the trash trucks are running around like ants on a hot plate," said Arnie Berghoff, a veteran lobbyist for garbage giant Browning-Ferris Industries. "But when you really look at it, there is some logic to it."

The world of garbage disposal has one cardinal rule, an imperative that sometimes defies the dictates of geography and often infuriates residents who live beside hulking landfills: Trash generally goes where it's cheapest.

Case in point: the Los Angeles City Council's recent decision to allow Browning-Ferris to expand the Sunshine Canyon Landfill into Granada Hills. Hundreds of residents protested the plan, including schoolchildren who wore gas masks to council meetings to dramatize their plight. Why not ship the waste to a desert landfill, some asked, far from populated neighborhoods and schools?

The answer boiled down to dollars. Landfills charge tipping fees--a toll to dump a ton of garbage--and BFI offered a price of $18.26 per ton at Sunshine Canyon.

The tipping fees at two alternative landfills, Antelope Valley and Lancaster, were comparable, at $19 per ton. But the projected costs of hauling the garbage there more than doubled the price, according to a city analysis.

"It's easy to say, 'Oh, just get it out of town.' But it costs a lot of money," said Joe Haworth, spokesman for the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County. "There should be a really good reason for getting it out of town--such as, there's no more landfill space. Not just that we don't want that thing here."

Granada Hills residents most emphatically don't want that thing--an expanded dump that would gobble 55 million tons of trash over 26 years--anywhere near them. In January, the North Valley Coalition of Concerned Citizens sued the city, seeking to overturn the expansion.

The lawsuit is the latest volley in a fierce battle over Sunshine Canyon, home to a landfill for 42 years. Residents won the fight to close the dump after its city permit expired in 1991, only to see it reborn five years later just outside city limits in unincorporated Los Angeles County.

The Economics of Trash

Browning-Ferris poured nearly $600,000 into a lobbying campaign to win the City Council's 8-7 vote to widen the dump back into city territory. The vote incensed many Valley residents and added momentum to the push for secession.

"I've become the most cynical person in the world," said Anne Ziliak, a Granada Hills mother who suffers from allergies that she attributes to dust swirling off the nearby landfill.

"Instead of money, [city officials] should be thinking about the health of the people," she said. "I think they should take a good look at themselves and ask, 'Would I want to live next to a landfill?' "

In Southern California, most garbage is dumped relatively close to where it originates. In 1998, the most recent year for which statewide data are available, all five local counties disposed of most of their residential and commercial waste within their borders.

Riverside County kept the highest proportion of its garbage, exporting only 2.6% to nearby counties. At the other end of the spectrum was San Bernardino County, which sent 27.5% of its trash to other counties, mainly Orange and Riverside, according to records from the California Integrated Waste Management Board.

The tipping fees at various landfills certainly influence where garbage is dumped. The city of Rancho Cucamonga, for example, saves $8.67 per ton by trucking its municipal trash to the Olinda Alpha Landfill in Orange County instead of to the pricier San Bernardino County dumps, said Bob Zetterberg, the city's waste coordinator.

Distance, too, is important. Time spent hauling garbage along the freeways means time off the trash collection route, wear and tear on the trucks and higher fuel bills.

"It's all driven by dollars, like anything else," said Paul Glass, engineering and operations manager at San Bernardino County's Waste System Division.

For the western cities of San Bernardino County, "it's just cheaper to go to the other counties," he added. But "you can't go too far. Otherwise, it'll cost too much."

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