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Hahn Steps Up Efforts to Block Landfill's Expansion Into L.A.

The Sunshine Canyon dump, on county land, is planning to cross city limits in October.

May 13, 2003|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

It's a typical afternoon at Sunshine Canyon Landfill, meaning tons of rotting food, mangled bicycles, old carpet and tattered beverage cartons emptied from Los Angeles trash bins are scattered on the ground awaiting burial.

With each truckload, the landfill on unincorporated Los Angeles County land is nearing its limit. To accommodate the seemingly endless stream of garbage, the operators plan to cross Los Angeles city limits in October and open an extension into Granada Hills big enough to handle 500 trucks a day.

With time running out, Mayor James K. Hahn is pushing to scuttle the expansion by blocking the few remaining permits the owner needs to operate in the city. Beyond that, Hahn wants to stop dumping city trash at Sunshine Canyon when the current contract expires in 2006, and find what he says are safer, if more expensive, ways to get rid of the nearly 1 million tons of waste that Los Angeles produces each year.

It is a strategy that carries risks. Legal experts say Hahn's bid is a longshot, since the city approved the expansion in 1999. If the landfill prevails and Hahn cancels the contract, the operator, Browning-Ferris Industries, said it would simply find other sources of garbage. Residents could wind up with higher fees for remote disposal, coupled with a teeming landfill taking other peoples' trash.

Some contend that Hahn is merely courting influential San Fernando Valley voters who will be important to his reelection, recognizing that Sunshine Canyon symbolizes the sort of tensions that fueled the secession movement.

But the mayor said his aim is straightforward: keeping landfills out of Los Angeles.

"I think there are alternatives to burying our garbage next to where we live and where our kids go to school and where our drinking water supplies are," he said. "We need to get a good handle on what the costs are, but I don't know how you put a cost on the threat to the city's water supply and the health to people who live around landfills."

On a separate front, Hahn is fighting to limit the lone dump now operating in the city, Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley. Bradley is set to close in 2007. Before that happens, Waste Management Inc. wants to raise the landfill's height by 43 feet. Hahn recently sent a letter to the state board that oversees landfills recommending denial of a permit for Bradley.

For much of the last 50 years, the city has relied on local landfills for cheap, convenient dumping.

The practice was reaffirmed in 1999, when former Mayor Richard Riordan and the City Council approved BFI's plan to nearly double the size of Sunshine Canyon Landfill by expanding it into Granada Hills. The new 55-million ton facility could give Los Angeles a place to put its trash for the next 25 years.

As city attorney, Hahn defended the city's approval of the expansion against a suit filed by residents. He said he was obliged to do that as the city's lawyer. But as a candidate for mayor in 2001, Hahn denounced the landfill.

By then, the Valley secession movement was gaining momentum and Sunshine Canyon's own public relations consultant recognized that the landfill was a political liability.

"Support for Sunshine Canyon has eroded in every geographic area and among every demographic group in the city of Los Angeles," BFI consultant Harvey Englander wrote in a confidential memo. One reason was that "all of the City Council and mayoral candidates" had used "Sunshine Canyon as a vehicle to gain support of Valley voters," Englander wrote.

About 725,000 households fill up 80-gallon trash cans and push them onto the street, within easy reach of the city's fleet of 10-ton trash trucks.

On a recent morning, Ray Cruz, a 42-year-old city trash collector, circled a dozen East Los Angeles streets emptying, he estimates, 1,100 cans.

Cruz maneuvers the truck toward the barrels and then hits a button. A hydraulic lift hoists the cans over the truck, turns them upside down and empties them. After an hour or so, a strong odor indicates that the truck is nearing capacity.

"This is nothing," Cruz said. "Roll your window down."

Trash trucks either dump their loads on the floor of a smoky, hangar-like transfer station, where the waste is piled into still bigger trucks for the trip up to Sunshine Canyon, or they are driven straight to the landfill. Traffic is so heavy that BFI sometimes closes its gates by 10 a.m., having reached its daily limit.

Inside the landfill, the loads are weighed, checked for radiation, dumped, compacted by 100,000-pound trucks with steel wheels and then covered. A special liner at the bottom of the landfill is designed to protect the soil from contamination.

"To have environmentally sound -- which we believe it is -- close, low-cost, effective disposal is, we believe, an asset to any city," said Greg Loughnane, BFI district manager for Los Angeles.

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