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Inland Empire Focus Down in the dumps; Desert landfills see fortune in trash
Rob Messinger – Staff Reporter The Business Press/California
The Business Press Ontario, CA
Monday, April 22, 1996
Shuttered houses sit silently in the middle of nowhere – one of the few remaining vestiges of a defunct mining town in the desert east of Joshua Tree National Monument. Adjacent to the closed company town are the weather-beaten mountains where Kaiser Steel once ran a 24-hour mining operation. Several 1,500-foot-deep craters are scooped out of the mountains, and piles of gravel create new hills beside them.
Eagle Mountain doesn’t look like much to the casual observer. But to an increasing number of companies, remote sites like it represent the perfect place to invest millions of dollars. It’s arid, far from cities and it has access to rail lines.
In other words, it’s a perfect place for a dump.
Eagle Mountain isn’t alone. In addition to the Riverside County site, landfill developers have targeted land in San Bernardino and Imperial counties for large landfills. It’s part of a growing national trend that promises to close urban landfills, consolidate the industry and end government’s ownership of dumps.
The reasons for the trend are multifold, but they begin with rising environmental protection standards, according to Richard Daniels, president of Mine Reclamation Corp., the company that wants to develop the Eagle Mountain site.
“Building a landfill is now a very sophisticated and technical event,” Daniels said. Each of the three mega-dumps proposed for Southern California would build complicated liner systems several feet thick, and that drives the price per acre up to $400,000.
Because the costs are so high, developers need to create landfills that are large enough that they can spread those costs over several years and locales.
At the same time, urban areas are less willing to accept new and expanded landfills because of public health concerns. Many existing landfills were built in unpopulated areas of their cities, but urban sprawl has now put them in close proximity to residents.
“The days of the urban landfill are simply numbered,” said Glen Odell, project manager for Rail-Cycle, a joint venture that wants to build the Bolo Station Landfill in eastern San Bernardino County near the town of Amboy.
As urban dumps fill up, local residents won’t let them expand because of health concerns, creating demand for projects like Rail-Cycle.
Of course, the megadump proposals introduce a new problem into the trash picture – distance. Urban dumps may not be popular with residents, but they are close enough to make hauling trash by truck worth it. The megadumps, by contrast, all plan to haul by rail.
Despite the high-volume capacity of the megadumps, their developers say there is room for all of them, and that the competition will create a healthy pressure on landfill fees.
“The pie is finite, but I think there’s enough waste there for all of us,” said Richard Widrig, senior representative for California RailFill Systems, which plans to build the Mesquite Regional Landfill, a rail-haul project near Brawley in Imperial County.
The development of three megadumps in Southern California promises to drastically change the way the region deals with its trash and to revolutionize the waste management industry.
Instead of having several dozen smaller landfills handle Southern California’s daily output of 90,000 tons of trash, the future could be dominated by three landfills that would capture 60,000 tons of the daily waste stream. The megadumps would probably start with something much more conservative – the 3,000 to 4,000 tons per day that could fill one train. Even at maximum daily activity, the smallest of the three wouldn’t be full for 76 years.
The building of megadumps also may signal the end of the line for municipal government ownership of dumps. Because dumps are such a hot political issue and because they require so much money up front to build, city and county governments are less willing to build dumps to replace their aging landfills.
Getting permits for the megadumps has cost roughly $70 million so far, and preparing the sites for the first trainload of trash could cost another $250 million.
Of the many rail-haul megadumps across the country, only one is owned by a local government, according to Lanier Hickman, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, a trade group based near Washington, D.C.
At the same time, small privately owned landfills will also probably close, according to industry watchers. But that won’t push smaller companies totally out of waste management. Indeed, a new industry is being born out of stricter environmental regulations, like the landmark California Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989.
The act requires the amount of landfill waste to be cut 50 percent by 2000, which has given rise to a new series of recycling businesses, like material recovery facilities, which will sort trash before it is put on a dump-bound train.
“It’s a total apples and oranges deal. The whole economics is changing,” said Odell. “We’re taking away the gatehouse of the landfill, which just gets trash, and we’re changing to a gatehouse that processes an increased amount of the waste. More of it is going to end up on the floor of a recycling facility.”
In the case of Rail-Cycle, it plans to operate its own material recovery facilities. The company would start with one in the City of Commerce, which is already built and ready to go, and build up to six more. The other megadumps will not have affiliated recycling facilities.
POLITICAL, ENVIRONMENTAL WARS
Even if desert dumps reduce the level of public opposition directed at new landfill projects, they’re still not having an easy time getting permits. Political and environmental opponents have sued each project after its environmental impact report was certified.
The formal application process for Eagle Mountain began in mid-1989. Five years later, after collecting all but one of the 20 required permits, a lawsuit filed by a few residents of the almost-deserted adjacent town managed to overturn the environmental impact report.
While most of the issues raised in the complaint were dismissed, Mine Reclamation Corp. is updating several sections of the report and must reapply for the rest of the permits it once held.
Rail-Cycle is just beginning the litigation phase of its permitting process. The March primary election gave the project a “no decision” at the hands of the voters when both a pro- and an anti-Rail-Cycle measure lost. Now the project’s future is uncertain because of a lawsuit filed by Rancho Cucamonga- based Cadiz Land Co., and because there is no established mechanism for Rail-Cycle to pay its host fees to the county. The ballot measure that lost at the polls would have allowed the money to be paid as a business license fee.
Mesquite Regional Landfill, the Imperial County dump, has won the backing of local governments, which included the project in their regional waste management plan. But it is involved in litigation with an environmental group that threatens to hold up the project.
The uncertainties surrounding each project make it unclear which one will be the first to be built. It’s a serious question, because the first one up and running could benefit from the closure of some dumps that are close to overflowing.
Officials with each landfill insist they have the best position, but they all downplay the importance of being first.
“We’re all racing to get open because it takes so gosh darn long to get permitted,” said RailFill’s Widrig. “But the first one to get permitted doesn’t necessarily get the waste.”
Eagle Mountain’s Daniels agreed. “Having the best price is the critical factor, as is having a site you believe in. There is a slight marketing advantage to being the first permitted, but it is not the critical one.”
RAIL-HAUL PLAN ENDORSED BOYER, KLAJIC VOICE SUPPORT FOR SHIPPING OF TRASH TO DESERT AREAS
Dan Boyle Daily News Staff Writer
Los Angeles Daily News
Wednesday, September 4, 1991
Santa Clarita officials said Tuesday they want to meet with other cities to start a program to dispose of trash by transporting it by train to isolated desert areas.
Mayor Carl Boyer and Mayor pro tem Jill Klajic said they support transporting trash by rail as an alternative to building landfills in the Santa Clarita Valley.
Although the council is not ready to consider a particular proposal, both Boyer and Klajic referred to the Mine Reclamation Corp. plan for a rail haul program to ship trash from Los Angeles County 220 miles to an abandoned iron mine, the Eagle Mountain site, in San Bernardino County.
“When you see it, you can’t help but believe the Eagle Mountain site is a much better site than Elsmere Canyon,” Klajic said. “It’s desolate and totally destroyed.”
The City Council is scheduled to discuss rail haul programs at 7:30 p.m. today in the City Council Chambers, 23920 Valencia Blvd.
“I strongly believe we should be part of rail haul,” said Boyer. “We have no more right to hold off on any of this. We have to push for rail haul.”
Public Works Director John Medina said that cities in north Los Angeles County might need to work together to build a materials recovery facility, in which trash is stored and separated. All non- recyclable waste then would be shipped by train to a distant landfill, he said.
The proposed Eagle Mountain landfill would last 110 years and hold up to 700 million tons of trash, said Mine spokeswoman Cass Luke. Enough cities must participate in the rail haul program to make it financially feasible for the Pomona-based company, she said.
“The cities in the San Gabriel Valley are very interested in the project, but we have not signed any contracts with the cities at this time,” Luke said.
Klajic said Santa Clarita needs to commit itself to a rail haul program and then other cities could follow.
“Philosophically, the city is supporting rail haul, but that’s not enough,” Klajic said. “The city will have to sign on. Someone has to go first.”
Klajic said she hopes rail haul could be one way to stop a proposal by Los Angeles county and city officials to build a 190-million ton landfill in Elsmere Canyon, located 1-1/2 miles southeast of Santa Clarita.
San Fernando City Engineer Jerry Wedding said his city is considering a facility that would separate recyclable waste from non-recyclable waste.