Seven California counties band together to handle toxic waste

Scarcely anyone wants to share his neighborhood with hazardous chemicals. Southern California's last landfill dump south of Santa Barbara to take in a wide range of dangerous chemical wastes will soon close its gates to most toxic dumping.

The West Covina dump, shut down by public pressure, was the last of five once open to hazardous wastes in this region.

Like prisons or garbage dumps, the major roadblock in setting up any kind of treatment plant for hazardous wastes is resistance from the immediate neighborhood. Everyone wants them, but somewhere else.

So a southern California group is trying to overcome this hurdle with a different approach - a voluntary compact among local politicians in seven counties that takes a regional view of the need to treat waste and that spreads the burden fairly.

This quasi-governmental group, the Southern California Hazardous Waste Management Project, is seeking sites for 100 new treatment plants and a landfill for solid residues. Each county would get at least one facility, and would get others in rough proportion to the amount of waste produced within its borders.

The counties - Orange, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Riverside, Imperial, and Ventura - produce about 2.5 million tons of toxic soaps and sludges a year.

It's a slow and tentative political undertaking. There is little gain in it for local county supervisors and city councilors, who risk public outrage for helping to bring a treatment site to their districts.

Early this year, toxic wastes registered for the first time on the California Poll as an issue of ''extreme concern'' to most Californians, just behind crime and public school problems.

The Southern California Hazardous Waste Management Project is still in the drafting stages of forming an evenhanded agreement. But so far, says Jean Carr, coordinator of the project, ''we've got most elected officials to give this a shot if we can come up with something.''

''Everyone plays as long as everyone else plays,'' explains David Morell, former director of the project and now a regional official with the Environmental Protection Agency. ''I don't know what to do if anyone starts to break ranks.''

One incentive for local politicians to take part is to keep some control of these decisions. A bill already halfway through the Legislature would allow the state to overrule local governments on the matter.

''Nobody wants to be the one that brought the dump to town,'' says Dr. Morell , ''but nobody wants to be the one that brought down the whole statesmanlike plan, either.''

Hazardous wastes are a consequence of everyday life, from producing gasoline to dry cleaning, and treatment should be viewed in the same way as sewer service or garbage disposal, says Ms. Carr.

''We're a long way from that point,'' she admits, ''because of the mistakes we've made in the past.''

The full reach of some of those mistakes has grown even more clear recently. Earlier this month the Stringfellow Acid Pits, about 50 miles east of Los Angeles, were again reported to be spreading their poisons, including heavy metals, much faster than had been thought. The underground plume of wastes has already contaminated wells in Glen Avon and threatens the Chino water basin, which supplies water to 500,000 residents in suburbs east of Los Angeles.

In May, radioactivity levels far above normal were discovered for the first time in well water near Stringfellow.

A neighborhood near the BKK Landfill in West Covina, the only toxic waste dump still open for business in southern California, was evacuated in July when poisonous methane and vinyl chloride gases were found to have leaked from the landfill into homes and yards of 19 families.

Federal and state laws now place on companies lifetime responsibility for the toxins they dump, and dumping fees are on the rise. BKK and other companies are moving into treatment of wastes, rather than pouring them into the ground. California has banned outright the dumping of liquids containing toxins such as cyanide and heavy metals.

But a toxic waste cannot be banned from the dump unless there is another way to handle it.

The next in line for the dumping ban, halogenated organics, are best incinerated, says Richard Wilcox, chief of the state toxics control program. But there are no incinerators available in the state to process the substances.

Meanwhile, the search for dumping sites goes on, with mixed success.

''The NIMBY (not in my backyard) syndrome has become a cliche in the business ,'' says Joel Moskowitz, California's top toxic waste control official. So far, Mr. Moskowitz says, the Southern California Waste Management Project has shied away from ''putting its members' feet to the fire.''

He has now asked local governments to sign away some land-use power to a regional entity, such as the project, before the state has to step in and force decisions on the region.

''No matter what you do, the likelihood of local resistance is high, and that's the biggest problem,'' says David Bauer, vice-president for environmental affairs at IT Corporation, which builds treatment facilities.

''If you have an angry community where you have forced your way in, you cannot survive long in that community.''

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