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City to Pay More, but Dump Less

The council agrees to pay millions to divert some trash from Sunshine Canyon Landfill, long the bane of nearby residents.

March 18, 2006|Steve Hymon and Lynn Doan | Times Staff Writers

In a move that by business standards may sound peculiar, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously Friday to pay more money to send less trash to the long-controversial Sunshine Canyon Landfill above Granada Hills.

Though the bulk of the city's trash still will be buried at Sunshine, about 600 tons of trash each day are expected to be trucked to other landfills in other cities. While agreements have yet to be reached, the trash is likely to go to Avenal, about 200 miles north of L.A., and Corona in Riverside County.

The move will hit city coffers. The cost next year alone would be anywhere from $2.5 million to $5 million, depending on the agreements, officials said. That's on top of the five-year, $157-million contract with the landfill owner.

Council members hailed the vote as a first step toward lowering the city's dependence on Sunshine Canyon in particular and, eventually, other landfills.

But the vote, taken on the final day to renew the contract with landfill owner Browning Ferris Industries, does not appear to solve the problem of Sunshine Canyon. That's because BFI can sell the space that the diverted L.A. trash would have occupied to other cities.

"They could sell the space tomorrow morning if they want to," said BFI lobbyist Arnie Berghoff. "The landfill will be there for at least 25 [more] years."

The council also is pursuing a long-range -- and, so far, unfunded -- plan to build six or seven waste-to-energy facilities in the city that would convert trash to products that can be sold.

As the sole recipient of all 940,000 tons of city trash yearly, Sunshine Canyon has long been a messy political problem for elected officials.

Nearby residents deplore Sunshine Canyon, believing it is a public health threat. Elected officials from the San Fernando Valley loathe it for other reasons: They don't want to be seen as dumping on their constituents, particularly should they run for higher office.

"This is about exercising leadership, colleagues, and about showing the way environmentally," said Council President Eric Garcetti in urging approval of the deal.

Garcetti said the extra cost of diverting the trash was reasonable and that lessening the city's dependence on Sunshine Canyon would help gain support for later initiatives -- such as increasing recycling -- to reduce the city's need for landfills. An important part of the deal for him, Garcetti said, is that Sunshine Canyon's owners also have agreed to reduce the wait time for idling trucks at the facility.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa helped negotiate the deal this week. Despite a $295-million city budget deficit, Villaraigosa said Friday that he backed the agreement because it is much better than a more expensive plan considered by the council last summer to cancel the BFI contract. Finding alternatives could have cost the city an additional $25 million a year.

"These are the kinds of balancing decisions we have to make," he said, adding, "I thought this was something that we could live with."

Under the deal, the city will be giving up a discount it received from BFI for taking nearly all of the city's trash to Sunshine Canyon.

But city officials say that by paying a little more to Sunshine Canyon, the city now has the flexibility of going elsewhere.

Still unknown, or at least not disclosed, are the full transportation and environmental costs of shipping the trash to more distant locales.

Sunshine Canyon is in Councilman Greig Smith's district, which covers the northwestern San Fernando Valley. Smith, during his 2003 campaign, promised to do what he could to close the landfill.

Smith said he didn't like the idea of taking the trash elsewhere but thought it would bring a measure of relief to Granada Hills residents while the waste-to-energy plan he had proposed is being developed.

"The long-term solution is the better one," Smith said.

Trash-to-energy operations have become increasingly popular in Europe and Asia, but questions remain about their costs and effect on the environment and whether Angelenos would tolerate them.

The vote was long awaited by residents of Granada Hills, who for decades have fiercely opposed Sunshine Canyon, which they allege has caused problems ranging from odors to potentially fatal diseases. The lone study, by Los Angeles County, found no evidence that the dump was a public health threat, but residents dispute the study.

Wayde Hunter, president of the North Valley Coalition in Granada Hills, said he was pleased that the city wouldn't have all its trash going to Sunshine but he was not rejoicing that it was going elsewhere.

"We're not NIMBYs," he said. "We don't want it in anyone's backyard."

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