From illegal dumping and unregulated toxic waste facilities on Indian land to more formally authorized landfills such as the Mesquite Mine facility, the Imperial Valley has long been treated as a dumping ground for solid waste from the rest of Southern California. A proposal to expand the tiny Salton City Solid Waste Site into a large regional landfill is only the most recent example.
Under the proposal, which will be voted on by the Imperial County Planning Commission on October 12, landfill operator Burrtec would expand the landfill's footprint from eight to 287 acres -- a 35-fold expansion. At present, the landfill receives a maximum of 50 tons of trash each day. After expansion, that amount might soar to 6,000 tons per day.
The expansion would push the landfill right up against the eastern boundary of Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and will affect the flat-tailed horned lizard, a species that is proposed for listing as Threatened under the Endangered species Act, and which has been documented on the site. Off-road vehicle enthusiasts who use the adjacent Truckhaven area are a mainstay of the Salton City economy, and residents fear the promised 250-foot mound of trash will deter those recreational visitors, spiking the small local economy.
According to Palm Springs Desert Sun reporter Keith Matheny, who wrote an extensive article about the landfill earlier this week, some locals also fear that the mountain of trash could endanger the proposed new city at Travertine Point, which we reported on in May.
Without the expansion, according to the project's Draft Environmental Impact review, the existing Salton City Landfill would reach capacity by 2017. Some other existing landfills in the area have abundant capacity, especially including the controversial Mesquite Regional Landfill near Glamis, a so-called "megadump" for Los Angeles' trash, with a rated intake capacity of 20,000 tons per day until 2097. Other landfills are slated to close within the next ten years unless expansions are approved.
Proponents' argue that the Salton landfill expansion would provide much-needed seven-day waste disposal services for locals. For Salton City resident Lynda Lou True, that line of argument isn't too persuasive. "There aren't a lot of us here," she told me. "Burrtec already provides us trash pickup, and we've all gotten used to just using the dump on the days when it's open. It's not a big deal."
True, who lives about eight miles from the landfill site, worries about noise and disruption of dark night skies if the 24-hour operation goes in. She's also concerned about water use by landfill operators.
"They're going to be using some of the groundwater for dust control," True said. "We don't have that much groundwater out here to spare. There's a spring not far away that wildlife relies on for drinking. What happens to them if the spring dries up?"
True and other Salton City residents are hoping to sway the county Planning Commission to vote the project down at their October 12 meeting. The comment period for the project's Draft Environmental Impact Review ended in September, and the Final EIR is expected to be released before long.
"There's money in garbage," said True. "The County wants this landfill so they can charge Los Angeles, San Bernardino and Riverside to put their trash here." True says neither the county nor the landfill operators have reached any such agreements with outside cities, but the lure of potential income as landfills closer to the coast reach capacity is hard to explain away.
If the history of waste politics in the Salton Basin is any indication, opponents have their work cut out for them. The Mesquite Landfill was the subject of bitter and protracted litigation. Opponents of a giant sewage sludge disposal site that operated in the early nineties on the nearby Torres Martinez reservation fought for years before getting the site closed down. Whether it's household garbage or toxic waste, the Imperial and Coachella valleys have long been a dumping ground of choice for outside municipalities. What city dwellers toss in the trash -- or flush down the drain -- often finds its final resting place in the low desert.
It's just one more indication that we're all connected, and that our actions in one place can have repercussions far away. Turns out one of the best things Angelenos can do to preserve the desert is to follow that old dictum "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle."
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.