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Bitter Dispute Sprouts Over Los Angeles' Sewage Sludge

Farming: When Kern County tried to curb flow, L.A. sued. With disposal options limited, stakes are high.


SHAFTER, Calif. — The heat of another Central Valley workday bounces off the pickup hood as Edd Palla rolls past his sprouting farm fields. Over there is alfalfa. Up a bit stand the sugar beets.

And just down the road is the tail end of the Los Angeles sewer system.

Each day, more than 50 big-rig trucks from metropolitan sewer plants rattle into Kern County loaded with sludge, the goopy final product of urban waste water. One billion pounds is spread annually on the county's cropland, making Kern the state's No. 1 destination for sludge.

That distinction rankles Palla and other residents at the southern edge of California's bountiful farm belt. They feel dumped on by that big, noisy megalopolis just over the Grapevine. As Palla puts it: "We don't want to be L.A.'s toilet."

Those are fighting words, and an epic battle is raging in Kern County over sludge.

When the rural county adopted a plan in October to restrict sludge imports, Los Angeles and a powerful pack of Southern California sewage agencies reared up and sued. The sewer folks, dubbed the "sludge six" by Kern wags, worried that disposal costs would soar if they couldn't ship sludge here.

Los Angeles city officials have been particularly aggressive, whipping out their checkbook to spend $9.6 million this year on a swath of Kern farmland to preserve a home for the city's sludge.

There also has been a countersuit by Kern, a rash of legislative wrangling in Sacramento and plenty of rhetorical bombast in this most classic of California feuds, a battle of rural against urban, Central Valley versus Lotus Land.

In Kern County, people are casting themselves as David against the Los Angeles Goliath.

Many fear crop sales in the nation's fourth most prosperous agriculture county could be hurt if Kern gets saddled with a reputation as sludge central. Sludge foes also worry about possible health risks and say the handful of farmers who accept the stuff--seeing it as a cheap way to fertilize flagging cropland--have sold their souls to the sewage agencies.

"The experts can't agree whether it's safe or unsafe," said Gail Ulrich, whose homestead in eastern Kern County is near a sludge site. "Why should we be the guinea pigs?"

Power of Farming Lobby

Such talk irks officials in Los Angeles and Orange County, who say sludge has been battle-tested around the world and proved safe.

The real power in this fight, they say, is a politically connected collection of Central Valley mega-growers driven by misguided worries of declining sales and bad public relations.

"This David and Goliath, it's a good spin for them," said Christopher Westhoff, general counsel to the Los Angeles Department of Public Works. "But you name a stronger lobby in California than the farmers."

Agribusiness demonstrated its political punch last month. A small group of wealthy farmers flew to Sacramento and lobbied against a bill by state Sen. Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles) that promised to undercut Kern's sludge ordinance. Facing formidable opposition, Polanco yanked the bill.

"We flew up on Southwest to lobby," Westhoff said. "The farmers flew up on a Learjet."

Even with the help of agribusiness, people in the county seat of Bakersfield feel outgunned.

Just look, they say, at the troops massing against them in the lawsuit, set for arguments next month in neighboring Tulare County. Los Angeles can draw on a city attorney's office with more than 400 lawyers; Kern County's legal operation has about two dozen attorneys.

"Certainly manpower-wise we're the underdog," said James Thebeau, Kern deputy county counsel. "They think their lawsuit is a slam-dunk. But they're trying to tell us what we can do in our own county. And that gets a lot of people here upset."

Much of the quarreling seems to be driven by the very essence of sludge: Many people are unsettled by the thought of a mix of human and industrial waste being used on farmland. That anxiety, exacerbated by long-standing regional rivalries, has fanned sludge fights all over the country.

"There's a smoldering resentment among people in rural areas," said Jim Willett, president of Yakima Co., which earlier this month abandoned efforts to build a new sludge compost plant in Kern County. "They feel big cities are taking advantage of them."

At Yakima's existing operation on the Buttonwillow Land and Cattle Co., trucks roll in from Orange and Los Angeles counties. Six days a week they dump piles of coal-black sludge, packing the scent of week-old garbage. By day's end, the stuff has been spread by tractors and plowed into the earth of the Buttonwillow farm. The farmers there welcome the stuff, saying it helps grow barley, cotton and other crops on land that would otherwise go fallow.

"See? You can hardly tell it's in the ground," said foreman Johnny Lopez, motioning toward a plot of turned soil. "You're around it a couple days and you can't even smell it."

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