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City of L.A., Kern County battle over human waste disposal

June 7, 2010 |  9:31 am

The U.S. Supreme Court’s refusal to review Los Angeles’ claim that a ban on dumping sewage sludge in Kern County violates federal laws has plunged the city into distress over how to dispose of its processed human waste.

The city's petition aimed to quash a Kern County law known as Measure E, approved in 2006 to block Southern California shipments of more than 450,000 tons a year of treated waste, called biosolids, to Green Acres, a farm the city bought in 1999 for about $15 million.

The sludge is tilled into the 4,700-acre farm’s soil to fertilize crops, including corn.

The Supreme Court declined to comment Tuesday, letting stand a previous 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision that the city and its allies, including the Orange County Sanitation District, lacked standing to sue under federal commerce law because the case involved transfers from one portion of the state to another.

The case has been sent back to Los Angeles U.S. District Court Judge Gary A. Feess, who must decide whether to maintain jurisdiction over remaining state-level claims or allow a state court to handle them.

The petition claims Measure E is preempted by the California Integrated Waste Management Act, which requires local agencies to recycle their wastes. The petition also claims that the measure exceeds its police powers by exerting authority over another government entity’s operations.

Kern County wants Feess to back out of the case, which would force Los Angeles to start all over again in state court. Los Angeles would prefer that Feess retain jurisdiction and reaffirm his 2007 ruling that struck down the ban as unconstitutional.

Regardless of Feess’ ultimate decision, Ted Jordan, assistant city attorney for Los Angeles, has no intention of dropping his legal challenges against Measure E.

“Our position is that it would be a waste of judicial resources to have this case fully briefed all over again in state court,” he said, “But we will refile in state court if we have to. People have a right to have ballot measures, but local governments cannot go against the state integrated waste management act.”

Kern County officials said the ban was intended to protect underground water and the local environment from possible contamination and emissions from diesel trucks.

However, campaign slogans such as "Measure E will stop L.A. from dumping on Kern," and "We've got the bully next door flinging garbage over his fence into our yard" suggested that law was aimed at slamming the door on Los Angeles’ sludge.

In its petition to the Supreme Court, the city warned that the 9th Circuit's decision, coupled with the Kern County ban, could unleash discriminatory trade war restrictions among municipalities in the same state.

Blocking the sludge transfer also would increase air pollution by forcing city trucks to haul the waste hundreds of miles to landfills in Arizona at an annual cost of more than $4 million.

“We’ve got a $100-million investment in Green Acres,” said former L.A. Deputy City Atty. Keith Pritsker. “There is no way we are going to walk away from it.”

The case is of particular interest to Steve Fan, manager of the 144-acre Hyperion Treatment Plant, the city’s oldest and largest wastewater treatment plant.

Located just south of Los Angeles International Airport, it receives about 350 million gallons of wastewater a day via 6,500 miles of sewage lines. The waste is treated with heat and digested by certain strains of bacteria to produce methane gas, which is used to generate electricity, and a substance Fan described as “clumpy and very dark with the consistency of wet cake."

“Each day, 28 trucks depart in the early morning hours -- when there is less traffic -- with a total 630 tons of wet cake,” he said. “By the time it is applied to the land at Green Acres, it is a steaming 120 degrees. It meets all state and federal requirements for bacterial counts and heavy metals. The farm is surrounded with a 500-foot-wide buffer zone.”

-- Louis Sahagun

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