The Eleventh Plague

A skeptical young Metropolitan Water District chemist explained it to me 10 years ago. Over a dinner of Montana Avenue pasta, she laid it out straight: "In the environment, there are no solutions. There are only trade-offs."

I noted the remark and filed it away. At that precise time, though, we believed in solutions. I was writing a long piece about Los Angeles wastewater, and city officials were then agog with optimism that solutions to long-standing sewage problems were finally within reach. We were about to stop pouring the stuff into the increasingly desolated Santa Monica Bay. Instead, the city’s wastes would be transformed into a human-sourced, harmless hydrocarbon through the magic of a special, federally funded multimillion-dollar refinery. The hydrocarbon, in turn, would be burned to make electricity. It was so simple. My skeptical friend was right, though: It was too simple. It turns out you can’t make sewage literally disappear into clean air. Oh, after a court order, the first part went well enough — so much so that one seldom worries about Santa Monica Bay pollution, except when heavy rain fouls the storm drains. But the waste-to-energy burner became the biggest scientific flop since cold fusion. By 1995, when the city gave up on it, the huge contraption that was supposed to turn the trick had only seen use as a high-tech chase set for action movies. The sludge that was supposed to make power had no place to go. So, along with the unloved byproducts of other sewage plants in Terminal Island and San Diego, Riverside and Orange counties, it was directed to the utmost deserts, to be transformed into something called "biosolids," and thence, compost. At 440 million gallons per day, the city’s sewage outflow has been called the 10th-biggest river in California. There’s a lot of potential compost in there. According to the Department of Sanitation’s John Cross, at three out of four contracted composting farms, the city’s waste is being successfully recycled. But according to recent reports, there seems to be a big problem at the fourth site, the Bio Gro composting facility in the high desert near Lancaster. It’s that old issue of trade-offs, not solutions. As R. Lyle Talbot of high desert Citizens Against Pollution put it to the Board of Supervisors last week, "It’s Heal the Bay and Screw the Desert." Problem was, the site that Bio Gro planned to develop into a composting facility was flooded up to a foot deep by this year’s winter rains. Well reported by Sharon Bernstein in the Times, this put the entire 67-acre Lancaster composting project on hold for another month. February’s prodigious storms cascaded off the surrounding mountains into the Antelope Valley and all over the putative sludge farm. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Furthermore, according to the state’s Regional Water Quality Control Board’s recent letter to the Board of Supervisors, the operators of the facility failed to notify the water-quality regulators about the flooding. The operators, the Bio Gro Division of the fascinatingly named Wheelabrator Water Technologies Corp., had promised in their project description that "Stormwater [would be] collected in the impoundment basin" and eventually used for on-site irrigation and dust control. It was not supposed to slosh over the surrounding landscape. In any case, spurred by perennial compost fanatic Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes the site, the board is withholding final approval of the Bio Gro farm until they receive a full report by the local Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board at the end of this month. According to officials, the Bio Gro firm might have to raise higher floodwater barriers around the property — something that the proprietors claim would cost more than $70 million. This storm-water problem was, of course, no secret to people living near Bio Gro. Neighbor and orchard owner Dolores Reagan, a composting opponent, showed the board her videotape of the flooding across the property. Also illustrated were nearby ditches, filled with sediment. Project opponent Talbot called the plan "cheap and dirty." He charged that only cost, not health, factors had been considered in the original planning. Talbot, himself a former county survey employee, may be stretching it slightly. According to the environmental-impact report, due consideration was taken of ground-water seepage and possible dust-borne pathogens. Also of high winds — though Talbot disputes the report’s 43-mph top-average wind speed. He insists that winds as high as 90 mph blow through. The project’s technology is mostly focused on regulating the drying process by means of water sprays, in order to keep the stuff from blowing around. More thought seems to have been spent on this potential dust problem than on flooding. The scale of the Bio Gro operation is awesome: According to documents, a mechanical conveyer "will fashion finished product piles approximately 16 feet high and 400 feet wide. Up to 360,000 cubic yards . . . will be stacked in contiguous piles . . . 1,600 feet long." That’s about 216,000 tons of the stuff, which will also include yard trimmings, known as "greenwaste." But it doesn’t take imagination to envision what a good, low-level flash flood could do to such a pile. It could turn it into an areawide involuntary fertilization program for a region where a couple thousand or more people happen to live. Talbot is even skeptical as to whether the proposed flood barriers (which Bio Gro opposes as too costly) would help. "A few gopher holes in them and away they go," he said. The economics of the proposal are, in Talbot’s view, loaded to favor the operator, who gets a $19-a-ton fee for hauling the sludge away from Los Angeles. Composting opponents claim that this is already enough profit to make the operation pay, undermining Bio Gro’s further motivation to sell much of that 210,000 tons of product that piles up on its premises every 10 months. I used this material once, and it did great things for the eggplants and peppers. At its current capacity, I calculated, Bio Gro will annually produce a 50-pound sack of compost for every man, woman and child in Los Angeles County. That’s a lot of backyard eggplants. But the Department of Sanitation’s Cross says that at the other composting facilities, the stuff goes right out the door to be spread on Central Valley factory-farm fields. One of those compost farms is, in fact, in the San Joaquin Valley. "It’s a great program," he said. Except when it’s located in an inhabited area, prone to flash floods. Then it’s called a trade-off. The End of the Tunnel Watching Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky out there at his press conference the other week, with all his charts and tables, his pointer and that proposed initiative to halt the Los Angeles subway, you imagined the voice of whilom mayoral candidate and state Senator Tom Hayden marveling, "Wish I’d thought of that." But the mere fact that the ploy hadn’t turned up in one mayoral campaign doesn’t guarantee it won’t be seen in another. Zev’s big plan to gather enough signatures to stop the Red Line forever in North Hollywood could keep the long-standing Los Angeles mayoral hopeful in the public eye until well after the next mayoral campaign starts shaping up just two years from now. As I talked with a transit-insider friend the other day, we both pondered how the vast and waste-filled MTA program has divided the community it was supposed to unite. This Yaroslavsky initiative is another example of this divisiveness, my friend said, by aborting an eastern Red Line extension that would provide a fast, cheap (for riders) connection between the two most densely populated parts of Los Angeles — Pico Union and Boyle Heights — via the job-rich downtown area. But Zev said his own polling showed a strong opposition to the subway, particularly on the Eastside. Actually, nobody seems to want more passenger trains of any kind in Los Angeles. Elite Westsiders are particularly hysterical in their opposition to light-rail routes bordering their bosky communities. It is sometimes said that trains are what the typical Angeleno wants the other guy to ride, so that one can have the freeways to oneself. Of course when everyone feels like that, while also opposing rail construction, what happens is exactly the opposite.