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Orange County

Landfill Would Be Irvine Co.'s Gift (or Liability) to County

October 22, 2002|Janet Wilson | Times Staff Writer

The Irvine Co. is offering the county an unusual gift: a 35-year-old methane gas-loaded landfill in the middle of the company's East Orange development area.

The Santiago Canyon landfill sits on Irvine Co. land but has been operated by the county, which plans to grade, cap and replant it by 2004. The Board of Supervisors will vote on the developer's offer at its meeting today.

But some call the gift nothing more than a ruse by the company to shift potential liability and cleanup costs to the public. They note that the landfill is protected open space, having been included in the Nature Reserve of Orange County.

"This doesn't do anything but transfer all the liability to the county. That's not a gift I would take," said Chris Koontz, a USC junior who sued the company over a piece of its East Orange plans, and won concessions on runoff and wildlife. "This is a great deal for the Irvine Co.... There is a lot of liability associated with owning a former landfill, because methane can leave the site."

The Irvine Co. said the county has always assumed full responsibility for the landfill and planned to eventually take control of it.

"There is no shift of liability," Irvine Co. spokesman John Christensen said late Monday. County officials couldn't be reached after office hours for a reply. Earlier in the day, county waste management spokeswoman Linda Hagthrop said she could not comment on whether the county was increasing its risk by assuming ownership of the site.

Under state and federal law, a landfill operator "has the most significant responsibility," and the landowner is "responsible for ensuring the operator does what the law says," said Karen Hodel, program manager for the Orange County Solid Waste Local Enforcement Agency.

Koontz said it would be wiser for the county and the Irvine Co. to continue to share the costs and risks associated with closing the landfill.

James Carter, a board member of the Nature Reserve of Orange County, also expressed misgivings. "It's like you're donating your old, leaking septic system to the county, and them saying 'Oh, thank you.' It hardly makes sense."

The site, off Santiago Canyon Road between the Eastern tollway and Irvine Lake, has been leased by the county for landfill operations since 1967. The landfill stopped accepting trash in 1996, but the county has continued to rent it at an average cost of $2,000 per month.

"We've been working with the county to bring closure to our involvement," said Irvine Co. spokesman Christensen.

While no development is planned on or near the landfill, Hagthrop said the county wants to be on the safe side.

"We just don't want to take any chances.... Problems tend to arise when buildings are placed on or near a landfill," she said.

The landfill, which holds about 23.7 million cubic yards of refuse, generates about 1,100 cubic feet of methane per minute, said Hagthrop.

There is a methane disposal and monitoring system at the site to disperse the vapor in the air.

Hodel said that, legally, methane cannot exceed about 5% of normal air. She said the site once "occasionally" had higher readings, but those excessive emissions were quickly reduced.

Hagthrop said the county, by owning the property, could also consider conversion of the methane to electricity, which could be used on the site while grading, trash-covering and other closure work occurs.

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