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Our View: One valley, one vision for sorting trash

Posted: March 1, 2009 1:29 a.m.
Updated: March 1, 2009 4:55 a.m.

The Santa Clarita City Council got an earful Tuesday from neighbors of the two nearby landfills, in Val Verde and Granada Hills.

Residents there have been up to their eyeballs in trash for decades, and they look forward to the day when the dumps will be closed. So they don't want even more of Santa Clarita's trash trucked to their communities, thank you very much.

At issue was the siting of a new trash-sorting facility - which, ironically, is intended to keep more trash out of landfills.

The story of trash in Santa Clarita is a long and controversial one, as it is in most places. Ninety years ago, when The Signal was young, we sent our food waste to hog farms in Saugus.

The hogs would chew it up, and we'd chew them up in turn at the breakfast table. It was an early version of recycling.

There weren't enough hogs to keep up with the massive influx of humans in the 1960s and 1970s, so the hog farms gave way to earthen pits where we dumped everything from banana peels to plastic containers.

Scientists and activists in the 1970s - we called them "ecologists" then - realized this couldn't go on forever, so they turned our attention to new forms of recycling that didn't involve hogs.

By the 1990s, the California Legislature jumped on the bandwagon and demanded that cities and counties "divert" more and more of their trash, rather than send it all to the local landfill.

At first the state required municipalities to recycle (divert) 25 percent of their garbage; today the requirement is 50 percent, and many expect it to go to 75 percent in the near future.

It's one thing to recycle 25 percent of your trash, but Santa Clarita and most other cities throughout California had trouble hitting the 50-percent mark.

Santa Clarita, like many others, was at the mercy of its citizens. It needed every last person, including that disagreeable fellow at the other end of your block - you know the one - to separate his trash into different containers, voluntarily.

Furthermore, that recycle bin and yard-waste bin had better be fuller than the general garbage bin, or cities could be fined big bucks for missing the 50-percent mark.

(With so many delinquent cities, the Legislature probably could balance the state budget for years to come if it actually levied the fines that are on the books.)

The city of Santa Clarita says we're recycling 54 percent of our trash now, but that's more the exception than the rule. The only way to guarantee that we'll recycle as much as state law requires is to take the onus off the guy down the block and make it involuntary.

Which brings us to the current debate over a materials recovery facility, or MRF (which rhymes with "Smurf").

A MRF is a big trash-sorting facility. All garbage would be trucked there and placed on giant conveyor belts and separated between recyclables and nonreusable solid waste.

The nonreusable waste would go to the landfill; the recyclables would be sold to companies that break them down into raw materials and ship them to places like Southeast Asia so you can buy them back in a new form at Wal-Mart.

As for appearances, a MRF is an industrial building that more closely resembles The Signal's press room or any other indoor manufacturing facility rather than a converted hog farm. Instead of big tractor-trailers delivering rolls of newsprint, smaller trucks deliver loads of garbage.

Regulations don't allow it to be "smelly" from the outside, and if it's well-designed and landscaped, most passers-by wouldn't give it a double-take.

When it awarded the commercial trash franchise to Burrtec Waste Industries in 2003, the city of Santa Clarita told Burrtec it had to build a MRF and have it up and running by Feb. 15, 2006.

No longer would the city feel the hot breath of state regulators if we missed our recycling mark, because we wouldn't miss it.

So why didn't it happen? Well, because of a weird convergence of bureaucratic red tape, community opposition and just plain bad luck.

First, Burrtec wanted to put the MRF on the former Keysor-Century property on the former San Fernando Road in the heart of the city.

It was a case of bureaucracy at its finest: The state was forcing the city to recycle more, but the Public Utilities Commission - another branch of the state - wouldn't allow the necessary at-grade rail crossing.

And there were local concerns about truck traffic - never mind that Waste Management already drives its trucks in and out of its own plant right next door.

So the city gave Burrtec until November 2007 to open a MRF somewhere else.

"Somewhere else" was going to be the Gate-King property off Pine Street in Newhall. But then it became clear that the Santa Clarita Oak Conservancy's lawsuit challenging the city's approval of the Gate-King Industrial Complex wasn't going to go away.

This bit of bad luck led to another delay, this time until November 2009.

Now getting a bit desperate for usable property, Burrtec purchased land south of Golden Valley Road in the narrow slit between Sierra Highway and state Route 14.

The community came unglued, particularly folks in Canyon Country, who didn't relish the notion of challenging trash trucks on their already-congested morning and evening commutes - and who didn't want to live next to a "dump" any more than the residents of Val Verde or Granada Hills did.

To them, it really didn't matter that a MRF isn't a dump. They knew that all of Santa Clarita's trash would be trucked there, and they didn't like it.

On Tuesday, in no less than the eighth amendment to Burrtec's franchise agreement, the City Council gave the waste hauler until November 2011 to open and operate a MRF - a delay of nearly six years from the original target date.

Where will the MRF go? Is there any piece of land inside or outside city limits where the neighbors would tolerate an operation that has been so stigmatized?

Nobody knows, so the city is throwing the question to the community. Taking a cue from the county's homeless shelter task force - in which representatives of the county, city, schools and town councils were tasked with finding suitable locations for a winter emergency homeless shelter - the city announced it will form a similar broad-based committee to find a site for a MRF.

Supervisor Mike Antonovich's office declined the invitation to serve on the committee. We can only hope he has a better explanation than wanting to stay out of the fray.

Trash isn't just the city's problem. It's a regional problem. It's not as if the county is recycling 50 percent of its trash. It isn't. The county approved a MRF at the Val Verde dump but never built it.

We need a MRF. We should have already had one. We need to stop sending so much trash to the Val Verde landfill, where all of Santa Clarita's non-recyclable garbage goes today.

The MRF should be for everybody. We shouldn't be sorting city trash from county trash; we should be sorting recyclables from non-recyclables, whatever their SCV origin.

To that end, we should find the best location that makes the most sense for the entire community, regardless of municipal boundary lines.

We're supposed to be one valley with one vision, after all.


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