I DON'T THINK I'VE EVER WRITTEN A PAEAN TO A LANDFILL BEFORE. LIKE everyone, my notion of a landfill was dominated by images of scurrying rat hordes, flocks of screeching sea gulls, blizzards of windblown litter and a sickly sweet stink, as of dead bodies.
Yet, fellow refuse generators, today I want to honor a landfill without whose grace life here would be an ungodly mess.
Like most of us, the Puente Hills landfill is taking Sunday off, letting its great stomach settle and its voluminous, gassy breathing ease a bit. Tomorrow it will return to the desperate work it does on our behalf.
When New York City's Fresh Kills dump closed earlier this year, Puente Hills became the largest landfill in the United States. Every day from Monday through Saturday, a long rosary of garbage trucks assembles at its gates just outside the City of Industry by 6 a.m. By early afternoon, sometimes sooner, the landfill has consumed its legal daily limit of 13,200 tons of garbage from about 1,600 trucks. (Last year Puente Hills single-handedly absorbed almost 3.7 million tons, 35% of what Los Angeles County residents put out.)
Trash haulers love Puente Hills. It's set conveniently in the densely peopled east-central county, off the 60 Freeway west of the 605 Freeway. Because it's publicly owned, its "tipping fee" is only $18.05 a ton, about half that charged by the three other large dumps in the county, all private, and two-thirds that of Orange County's three publicly owned landfills.
The landfill belongs to the County Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County, a federation of 78 municipalities that is independent of Los Angeles County government, from which, like all landfill owners, the organization must get permission to operate.
Puente Hills has enough space to receive our trash for another 12 years. By that time, the sanitation districts hope to be hauling refuse by rail to huge new landfills in Riverside and Imperial counties. Desert environmentalists, however, are waging legal war against the districts' plans.
Puente Hills' current permit, meanwhile, runs out in 2003, and opposition to its renewal is inevitable. Residents of adjacent Hacienda Heights aren't exactly delighted to be living next door.
For an operation of its size, Puente Hills does its work remarkably discreetly. From the freeway you see only a great green slope covered in silken clumps of long red fescue grass, eucalyptus, pepper and sycamore trees, mule fat and oleander.
From atop the slope looking east at the section of the 44-year-old landfill currently being worked, you encounter an altogether different sight. A steady stream of trucks huffs and rattles across a tidy, 250-acre dirt bowl, beneath which 300 feet of refuse lies buried and compressed. The trucks make for a one-acre patch where the day's trash is being dumped. Graders shape the refuse into a 20-foot-high trapezoid against the bowl's side. By the next day, this mass will be covered by a foot of dirt. Then the day's take is immediately covered with vermin-, gull- and litter-preventing dirt.
Within an hour of burial, oxygen-loving bacteria consume all the oxygen in the trash's organic component. Then oxygen-hating bacteria set about transforming it into methane gas.
Landfilling would seem to be the antithesis of the recycling ethic that, aided by a stringent state law passed a decade ago, has helped reduce the amount of waste buried in L.A. County by 2 1/2 million tons a year. Yet, in its own way, Puente Hills is a paragon of recycling.
The methane it exhales enters a multilayered system of buried pipes and wells kept under constant suction. Through this network, the gas is drawn to an on-site power plant, where it's burned to produce steam. The steam drives turbines that generate enough electricity to power 50,000 to 100,000 homes, depending on the season. Sold to Southern California Edison, the electricity brings in between $1 million and $3 million a month, depending on market prices, says sanitation districts spokesman Joe Haworth. The methane also fuels the landfill's vehicles.
At Puente Hills, refrigerators and air conditioners are disassembled, and their sheet metal sold for scrap. Their chlorofluorocarbons are extracted and used in the air-conditioning systems of the landfill's graders, tractors and trucks. Ash from two trash incinerators located elsewhere in the county is mixed with concrete to capture its heavy metals, then the hardened compound is ground up and used as landfill roadway during the rainy season. The vegetation planted over Puente Hills' completed sections is irrigated by water from the sanitation districts' nearby water reclamation plant.
Eventually, plans are, the dirt bowl of Puente Hills will be transformed into an undulating, chaparral-covered slope, a new county park. Methane will continue to be sucked from it for 20 or 30 years afterward, and the site will be monitored for leaks for an additional two decades.
After the land's long enslavement to our wasteful ways, time will work its amnesia. Those people riding horses and hiking over its remade face will grow ever more dimly aware of its past, and the place will enter a kind of redeemed afterlife, the ultimate recycling.