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Signal Op-Ed: Lynne Plambeck: Guilty of unclean hands

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Lynne Plambeck: Guilty of unclean hands

By Lynne Plambeck
SCV Voices

Posted: August 24, 2016 4:55 p.m. Updated: August 25, 2016 2:00 a.m.
Unbeknownst to anyone in the Santa Clarita Valley or the community of Val Verde, a bureaucrat in the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning secretly signed something called a “clean hands” waiver to grant Chiquita Canyon Landfill permission to ignore the condition of its 1997 approval.

That condition required the landfill to close after receiving 23 million tons of garbage.

With his unprecedented action, Planning Director Richard Bruckner has destroyed the trust of everyone who relies on the county to enforce the conditions of approval placed on land use and other project permits when they are granted.

These conditions are supposed to offset the impacts of these projects on the public and nearby communities by requiring monitoring, park space, traffic lights, adequate water and sewage, and other necessities.

They are covenants with the community that major concessions will be made for protections and improvements if the project moves forward.

So when this covenant is broken with the stroke of a pen, and without informing the community, we should all be worried.

A little background on the Chiquita Canyon Landfill issue: In 1993, Santa Clarita fought hard to make sure a dump was not located in Elsemere Canyon. At the same time activists were demanding, along with our city, that more recycling and reuse occur because reducing the waste stream would reduce the need for landfills.

A 2015 NASA study also found that landfills are the biggest emitter (besides the Porter Ranch natural gas leak) of methane in the Los Angeles Basin. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, one that we must get under control if we are ever to reduce the frightening effects of global warming.

Some progress was made in reuse and recycling. Local and state governments started requiring recycled paper content in their purchasing policies, McDonald’s and other fast-food restaurants banned Styrofoam containers, many communities (but not Santa Clarita) banned plastic bags – which are unfortunately still ending up in landfills to the tune of 24 billion per year, according to CalRecycle.

Curbside recycling appeared in communities across the state as cities were required to reach at least a 50 percent recycling goal.

All this reusing and recycling helped, but not enough to keep our other local landfill, Chiquita Canyon, from expanding in 1997.

After suffering for years from odors and concerns about water quality, residents of nearby Val Verde fought hard against this expansion. They finally agreed to settle with the promise that the landfill would close when it reached 23million tons or by November 2019, whichever came first.

This agreement was clear in several of the conditions of approval placed on the project and approved by the Board of Supervisors. Specifically, Condition #9g says, “Nothing in this condition shall permit the maximum tonnage of 23 million tons to be increased”; Condition 46 reads, “The maximum total capacity of the landfill shall be 23 million tons.”

Condition 44 says the landfill operator shall comply with the agreement made with the community, including providing residents with all notices and reports on landfill activities.

This condition also states the county will not enforce it, but one would think the county would not be complacent in undermining it by failing to notify residents of its intention to waive a central component of the agreement.

But neither the landfill operator nor the county intends to keep the agreements, instead working together to obtain the “clean hands” waiver in March without informing the community.

Apparently someone at the county knew for some time the landfill was approaching its limit because a draft addendum was submitted to the county in November 2015. Again, the community was not informed of this, a violation of Condition 44.

So the county had knowledge of the approaching limit at least nine months ago. Why did it not require that a closure plan be developed instead of figuring out a “legal” way for the landfill to breach its agreement and the conditions of its approval?

Instead, the county violated its own covenant with Val Verde residents – and everyone else in Los Angeles County who depends on county enforcement of permit conditions. Apparently at the operator’s request, the county granted a “clean hands” waiver of Condition 46, behind closed doors, without ever informing anyone in the public.

This allowed a 25 percent increase, or 6 million additional tons of capacity, without any public input and apparently based only on an inadequate environmental addendum review that was never approved by the Regional Planning Commission, or anyone else, according to records provided to us by the county.

This is not the first time the county has ignored or refused to enforce a condition of approval. Remember its failure to record the conservation easement over the Valley Oaks Savannah, which nearly allowed injection wells to be placed there until the mistake was rectified?

But to me this is possibly the most egregious action I have ever seen – due simply to the county’s promise to the community of Val Verde that it secretly and completely violated.

We should all be worried about such a breach of public trust.

Lynne Plambeck is president of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, an environmental protection organization.

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