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Ethan Orenstein, Spring 2013 Students

Waste matters: San Diego Co. landfill project continues despite Native American protests and increased recycling

By Ethan Orenstein

Photo by Ethan Orenstein

After nearly 20 years of planning and evaluating, the permitting process for a new landfill in north San Diego County continues amid stiff opposition from those who say the landfill will threaten natural water supplies, the environment and areas sacred to native people.

Click to explore a map of the planned location for the Gregory Canyon landfill.

The 308 acre landfill would be built on Gregory Mountain, about three miles east of Interstate 15 and two miles southwest of the community of Pala on State Route 76. The San Luis Rey River crosses the site from east to west.

The mountain, known as Chokla, and the San Luis Rey River are important spiritual and religious sites to the Pala Band of Mission Indians. To protect them from the landfill, the Pala decided to register the sites with the Native American Heritage Commission.

“A lot of times, native people don’t like to reveal and list sacred sites because then they become public,” said Shasta Gaughen, environmental director of the Pala Environmental Department. “But to protect them, it’s worth it.”

For the Pala, Chokla is the resting place of important spirits like Takwic, whose role includes collecting the souls of the dead.

There are also archeological sites all over the mountain. Artifacts ranging from bedrock mortars to ancient wall paint can be found just a couple hundred yards from the proposed landfill.

AUDIO SLIDESHOW: Pala environmental director Shasta Gaughen explains the cultural significance of Gregory Canyon.

Federal approval required for project to continue

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined the San Luis Rey River and its watershed fell within federal jurisdiction, the Corps needed to evaluate and approve the landfill for the project to continue.

The new step in the permitting process will postpone the project indefinitely, and the Pala plan to use the extended time to continue to fight to prevent the landfill.

Whether the Army Corps of Engineers approves the federal permit or not depends on public interest and the expected impact on the environment. An approval essentially concludes that any environmental impacts created by the landfill are insignificant.

“Not only are we going to submit hundreds of pages of public comments,” Gaughen said. “We’re going to encourage members of the public to send in their comments too. We’re just hoping to get people to say, ‘This is not what we want.’”

The push to prevent this permit is just one small battle in a long, expensive war.

“Even if the Army Corps denies this permit, it’s not the end,” Gaughen said. “Pala and local community groups have been fighting this since the 1980s. Pala will continue to fight until there is nothing left.”

Gaughen said the battle began for the Pala people when Gregory Canyon became a potential landfill site in the late 1980s. Since then, the group has spent well over $6 million fighting the project.

Save Gregory Canyon is the group created by the Pala to oppose to landfill. Other groups against the project include the National Resource Defense Council, with more than 250,000 members in California, and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Gaughen said the group has offered to buy the property in the past, but Gregory Canyon Limited, the private company that owns the land, wasn’t interested.

“Would we like to own it, yeah that would be great, but right now that probably won’t happen,” Gaughen said. “They’re just looking at the dollar signs they’re going to get from the tens of millions of pounds of garbage.”

GC timeline

Click to navigate this timeline of San Diego County’s search for a new landfill and the history behind the Gregory Canyon landfill.

With the lengthy process, new landfill technologies develop

The project has been in development since San Diego voters first approved Proposition C, the Gregory Landfill and Recycling Collection Center Ordinance, in 1994. Proposition C changed the county’s zoning laws to allow for a landfill and removed the Board of Supervisors from the approval process.

Samantha Bowman-Fleurov, a spokesperson for Gregory Canyon Limited, said the time it takes to plan, build and begin operation of a landfill is long, but the lengthy process may be an added benefit.

“It’s very daunting. The average landfill permits in about 18 years,” Bowman-Fleurov said. “The technology they had when they began permitting Gregory was not as good as it is now.”

She said the permitting process has given the technology a chance to improve. The landfill will be built with a 7.5 foot thick liner (PDF), which is designed with 16 layers to prevent waste material from seeping into the soil and groundwater.

But opponents worry about the garbage that will still be buried there long after the landfill is closed. Gaughen said there’s no guarantee that the liner will hold up forever, and there may be unforeseen environmental issues in the future.

Gregory Canyon Limited said this will be the first time a liner system of this caliber would be used for a municipal waste landfill. The design is supposed to make environmental contamination practically impossible.

Future waste production will determine need for landfill

Bowman-Fleurov said the landfill is needed because today’s economy is driven by material possessions designed to be thrown away, and very few people live on the bare essentials.

“Although we are more environmental than groups that burn their garbage, as a nation we still produce the most garbage,” Bowman-Fleurov said. “In a perfect world, we would not be creating all this garbage.”

In San Diego County, more than 3.2 million people are throwing away garbage, which ends up in one of the county’s six landfills. By 2050 that number is expected to increase by another million, according to the San Diego Association of Governments’ Regional Growth Forecast (PDF).

The Countywide Integrated Waste Management Plan (PDF) prepared by the Department of Public Works, which is required to demonstrate at least 15 years of remaining landfill capacity, has estimated that the last of San Diego County’s six currently active landfills will start to near capacity around 2030.

Click to explore this map of San Diego County's active landfills. Click the marker to see remaining capacity and expected closure dates. Source: CalRecycle

The active landfills are:

  • Borrego Landfill in Borrego Springs
  • Otay Landfill in Chula Vista
  • San Onofre Landfill in Camp Pendleton
  • Las Pulgas Landfill in Camp Pendleton
  • Sycamore Landfill in San Diego City
  • Miramar Landfill in San Diego City

While the region still has over a decade before its landfills reach capacity, José Ysea, public information officer for the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department, said landfills will be necessary in the future unless new waste disposal technology emerges.

“Until those new technologies have proven themselves, landfill capacity will be needed for the long term in the region,” Ysea said.

If approved, the Gregory Canyon project is estimated to last 30 years and dispose of about 30 million tons of garbage.

“Although efforts will be made to extend the existing landfill capacity at Miramar Landfill, currently the region is slated to run out of landfill capacity around 2037,” Ysea said. “In terms of the length of time needed to site a landfill or for new technology to be shown to operate successfully at a commercial scale, 2037 is just around the corner.”

Waste production decreases throughout the county

With a continued decrease in waste production, some of the active landfills may take longer to reach capacity and close than currently estimated.

The entire state of California is required to divert 75 percent of its waste from landfills by the year 2020 after Assembly Bill 341 was signed into law in 2011.

“We are on pace to not only meet that goal, but exceed it,” Ysea said.

The entire region is on track to meet waste diversion goals, according to Michael Wonsidler, waste management coordinator with the San Diego County Department of Public Works.

Over the past decade, total tons of solid waste generated has decreased by about 13 percent.

Waste generated chart

Click to explore a chart of San Diego County’s waste production trends. Source: CalRecycle

According to the Department of Public Works, the reasons for decreases in waste generation are:

  • the economic recession
  • increased conservation and recycling efforts
  • a reduction in yard waste and an increase in composting facilities
  • mandatory recycling ordinances
  • more recycling facilities

Wonsidler said a shift in thinking in terms of waste management to resource management has increased recycling and improved efficiency.

Materials like tires, concrete, rebar and yard trimmings were once considered waste. Those items can now be used to produce things like crumb rubber for astro-turf fields, road base and compost. Items including construction materials, rigid plastics and Styrofoam once went directly to the landfill, now they can be recycled and reused.

“Resource management recognizes that waste is not inevitable,” Wonsidler said. “Recycling, as a type of urban mining, will continue to provide raw materials necessary for production in the 21st century economy.”

Recycling awareness is also growing throughout the state. Some cities, including Oceanside and El Cajon, are even working towards a zero-waste goal.

“Until these advancements in both our understanding and management of resources become commonplace, landfills will remain the last resort for materials that are either not designed to be composted, recycled, reused, repaired or regulated,” Wonsidler said.

Increasing recycling is a major solution to waste problem

Through mandatory and voluntary efforts, recycling has increased significantly throughout California. According to CalRecycle, it’s a $12 billion industry.

Recycling bins line the outside of apartment buildings around San Diego.

Recycling bins line the outside of apartment buildings around San Diego. Photo by Ethan Orenstein

“There has been increased interest in maximizing recycling, buying durable goods and creating products with improved designs, considering the entire product lifecycle,” Wonsidler said.

He said the number of people who recycle has reached record highs and will continue to grow as recycling becomes easier.

“Recycling is widely available and the cost to participate is often significantly less than for trash service,” Wonsidler said.

Ysea said if waste production is to continue to decrease, it will take a cooperative effort from the governing bodies and every individual. The County and the City of San Diego offer workshops on recycling and low-cost composting options to divert items like food waste.

“That said, residents need to comply with the City’s recycling ordinance and divert as much of the waste as they can that they produce in their homes away from landfills,” Ysea said.

Small business adopts recycling as core value

At Reuseable Finds, in the Bay Park neighborhood, the shelves are stocked with repurposed and recycled goods. Items ranging from lamps made out of old, worn tea kettles to artwork made from rebar and concrete were diverted from landfills and given a new use.

Virginia and Stephen Mergener, the couple who owns and operates Reuseable Finds, are trying to set an example of what needs to be done throughout the county.

At home, the Mergeners started composting, planting native plants and repurposing old items for new uses. Soon after that, they started offering a property clean up service that, unlike other clean-up and hauling services, took nothing to the landfill.

Virginia Mergener said the response was positive and people really appreciated what they were doing. As their business grew bigger, they decided to open a store.

“We recycle everything. If we can do it, everyone can,” she said. “If we find something that needs repair, we’ll fix and repaint it and sell it in our store.”

Her husband, Stephen, agrees that there needs to be a bigger collective effort to recycle and much more regulation on what can be thrown away.

“When you go to the Miramar dump, they throw away everything out there,” he said. “I’ve seen people dump grandfather clocks.”

Carpentry skills are not required to repurpose an old item, sometimes a few coats of paint, some simple tools and a little imagination is all something needs. An item like a grandfather clock can be repurposed into a decorative storage shelf. If you do have some carpentry skills, especially with top wood planers, you would be astonished at how much is possible!

VIDEO: There are countless new uses for old items. Reuseable Finds co-owner Stephen Mergener explains how a grandfather clock can be transformed into a storage shelf.

He said widespread recycling efforts need to start with the individual. For landfill owners more recycling regulations can mean more costs and paperwork.

“I think it’s going to be a difficult task because people who control the trash,” Mergener said. “Control the trash.”

Virginia said some people never think to reuse an old item for something else, but doing so is an effective and environmentally responsible way to divert waste from landfills.

“Why just allow the dumper to dump anything? That’s just lazy,” she said. “People dump whole truck loads of things that can be recycled. If you can repurpose something, repurpose it.”


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