San Diego Is Producing Less Trash but Building More Landfills

Land Use UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

Running Out of Landfill Space? That's Garbage.

The county’s landfill capacity has more than doubled since the 1990s, though San Diegans are sending less trash to landfills and the city has an ambitious plan to cut the amount even further. Yet developers continue pushing to build two new landfills.

We’re always running out of space for trash, it seems.

Back in the early-1990s, when the Gregory Canyon Landfill in North County was first approved by voters, official estimates suggested all the county’s major landfills would be out of space by 2005. Fast-forward to 2005, when the county had not run out of room but fretted it could “possibly run out” by 2016.

Voters heard the same story – a looming lack of trash capacity – in June 2010, when they OK’d Proposition A to set aside 450 acres in East Otay Mesa for a landfill and recycling facility.

The dire warnings and the growing list of projects to contain all our garbage are at odds with our trashy reality: The county’s landfill capacity has more than doubled since the 1990s, though San Diegans are sending less trash to landfills and the city has an ambitious plan to cut the amount even further.

Some landfills expanded or found ways to better compact trash. We recycled more. The recession even played a hand – people bought less stuff, so had less of it to throw away.

San Diego County already has enough room for 125 million tons of trash, according to CalRecycle, the state’s waste regulators. In the six-county region, there’s over a billion tons of landfill capacity – enough room in some spots for generations of trash.

After reviewing a number of reports on landfill capacity, it seems officials always fret about whether we have enough room for trash. They don’t seem to get around to wondering if there is going to be too much room.

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The fight to build the planned Gregory Canyon Landfill, a 30 million-ton facility near the Pala Band of Mission Indians reservation, has been going on for a quarter-century.

If the landfill ever happens, trucks would dump those million tons of trash at the bottom of a mountain sacred to the Pala Band, possibly imperiling part of the county’s water supply.

Photo by Ry Rivard
Photo by Ry Rivard

In a cute little ad promoting Gregory Canyon, some bits of recent history aren’t taken into account.

“Data suggest that San Diego’s landfills are filling up so quickly that they’ll be depleted of all capacity by 2025,” the ad says. “This means our county needs a new landfill built in the right place.”

The figure comes from a 2011 report by consulting firm R3. The report was prepared for the Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of a crucial Clean Water Act permit Gregory Canyon’s developers need. The report is a few years old and heavily disputed.

In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency questioned R3’s math, saying it was “outdated and inconsistent, and may overestimate the need for the proposed project.”

The EPA said the Gregory Canyon Landfill was “well designed” but “poorly located” because of its effect on waterways and because of its proximity to Gregory Mountain.

The Pala Band of Mission Indians consider Gregory Mountain as sacred to them, a resting place of a spirit.

I was out by Gregory Mountain recently with Shasta Gaughen, the Pala Band’s environmental director. She pointed a decent way up the mountainside to show how high trash would be piled. As a journalist, apocalyptic scenarios come quickly to mind, but it was not entirely easy to imagine the grassy valley pummeled by bulldozers and the mountain wearing a bed skirt of trash.

Running beneath the ground of the Gregory Canyon site are two 48-inch diameter pipes that carry a portion of the water the county imports from Northern California and the Colorado River. Water officials worry work at the landfill could rupture those pipes, cutting off access to vital water supplies.

There are a few dangers to the 65-year-old pipes, including blasting during excavation at the landfill. In 1999, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California said that blasting could cause “a catastrophic failure” of the pipes and that the plan for the landfill “does not and can not protect” them.

The San Diego County Water Authority, which together with Metropolitan operates the pipes, has so far remained neutral on the project but has repeatedly expressed concerns about the pipelines. In one scenario, Gregory Canyon’s developers would pay to relocate the pipes.

To get the Gregory Canyon Landfill approved, its developers need to show the landfill is needed. The Army Corps never got around to making that call because Gregory Canyon’s original developers ran into financial trouble. A new developer, Sovereign Capital Management Group, has taken over the project.

County voters approved zoning for the site in 1994 – but only zoning. To open the landfill, Sovereign Capital needs to navigate a regulatory maze that will require approval from not just the Army Corps but the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the Air Pollution Control District, the County Water Authority, Caltrans, the Public Utilities Commission and the Fish and Wildlife Service.

The EPA, which also weighs in on Army Corps’ Clean Water Act permits, has already raised some significant questions about the project by suggesting there is simply too much landfill capacity in the region to justify permitting a new landfill that would harm the environment.

David Gibson, executive officer of the San Diego Regional Water Quality Control Board, said the developers need to demonstrate that Gregory Canyon is the “least environmentally damaging practicable alternative,” a regulatory term known as LEDPA.

“The question of LEDPA will be very much in the forefront,” Gibson said.

Last week, the Sycamore Landfill – which is on the border of the cities of San Diego and Santee – received approval for a major expansion that will keep it open through at least 2042.

The EPA suggested the expansion of Sycamore alone would add enough capacity in the county to raise questions about the need for Gregory Canyon. The agency also said San Diego could ship trash outside the county – and that might be less damaging than a new landfill. Los Angeles, after all, has that empty landfill out in Imperial County that can fit a century’s worth of trash. There’s also Prima Deshecha Landfill in Orange County or El Sobrante Landfill in Riverside County, which have a combined capacity of well over 100 million tons.

Like Gregory Canyon, El Sobrante is right off Interstate 15, a few dozen miles further up the road from San Diego. Prima Deshecha is in San Juan Capistrano, also not terribly far from North County population centers that Gregory Canyon might serve.

But capacity is one thing and cost is another. The biggest hole may not be the cheapest. Los Angeles has a mega-landfill out in the desert that is unused because it’s cheaper to take trash to Orange County.

There are three major landfills open in San Diego County right now: Sycamore, the Miramar Landfill and the Otay Landfill, not to be confused with the planned East Otay Mesa Landfill.

A Fortune 500 company called Republic Services owns both Sycamore and Otay. The city owns Miramar. If Miramar closes as expected in 2025, Republic will own the only two major dumps in the county.

When Miramar closes, the city and those of us in it will have to pay significantly higher costs to dispose of waste at other landfills, the city auditor warned last summer. Having the city-run landfill helps keep costs down by creating competition.

Mark Urquhart, a solid waste consultant, said even if there is a lot of room for trash, another landfill in the county might help keep prices down.

“That would hold the costs where they belong – at least it would keep them competitive,” he said.

Because the landfill at East Otay Mesa is still in the early stages of the environmental permitting process, less is known about it.

David Wick, its developer, emphasized that the East Otay Mesa landfill will have recycling, in addition to space for 180 million tons of trash – enough room for six decades of the county’s current annual output.

Wick criticized other landfills for growing higher. As Sycamore expands, it will stretch out another 25 acres but also climb another 167 feet into the area, towering up to 1,050 feet, or about two times the height of the Manchester Grand Hyatt Hotel.

“In other words,” Wick said, “instead of burying it, you’re creating a mountain of trash, and that’s no longer a landfill.”

It’s not clear whether it’s better to make existing landfills like Sycamore taller or to create an entirely new one that stretches horizontally, like East Otay Mesa would. Asked about Wick’s argument against taller landfills, a spokeswoman for Republic declined to engage in that sort of trash talk.

Sarah Elkind, an environmental historian at San Diego State University, said dumps may be their own kind of “Field of Dreams.”

“It’s like, could you have too many lanes on the highway?” Elkind said. “If the capacity is there, people will use it eventually.”

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