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Local landfill lease expires in 2023, could take that long to get another

March 16, 2012

The Benton Crossing landfill. Escaped plastic bags from the landfill cling to the fence that separates the landfill from the mountain landscape surrounding it as a worker covers more trash with soil. The landfill is scheduled for closure in 2023, but it could take that long to find another landfill, or another solution, to Mammoth’s trash problem. Photo/Wendilyn Grasseschi

Out of sight, out of mind.

That’s what garbage is, mostly. Trucked out of town to far-flung landfills across the county, we don’t really have to think about garbage much, don’t have to think about those white plastic garbage bags caught up against fences or roaming free across the sagebrush.

But that is soon about to change as Mammoth’s one and only landfill fills up fast.

The Benton Landfill east of Mammoth Lakes near the Owens River takes all of Mammoth’s garbage. But it’s getting on in age and its lease is set to expire in 2023.

That might sound like a long time and nothing to worry about, but in landfill terms, it’s not a long time.

And, it is something to worry about.

It can take a decade to get a new landfill permitted and up and running in California’s regulatory system; the price we pay for having some of the strictest water and air pollution control regulations in the country.

On top of it, a recently unusually truculent and litigious Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the landowner for the Benton Crossing dump, has started throwing even more regulations at the county as the county tries for a five-year lease (the last lease with the water department expired in 2011).

“They are a stiff customer,” said county counsel Stacey Simon. “And they hold all the cards.”

One of those conditions is that the county proves it is beginning the process of finding a new landfill site.

That would be easy if the county was clear about what it should do in the long run, but it’s not. It’s all enough to make the county more than a little bit nervous.

“Time is of the essence,” Mono County Supervisor Byng Hunt said Tuesday. “With what Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is doing in the rest of the Eastern Sierra … it worries me that they might pull the rug out from under us with this.”

Hunt was referring to the fact that the water department has recently sued two Eastern Sierra entities: Mammoth Community Water District over water rights critical to Mammoth’s future growth and current stability, and the regional air pollution control district over what it calls “excessive requirements” for mitigation projects on the Owens Dry Lake project.

  “Their political pressure is huge compared to ours, which is miniscule,” he said.

“I agree,” said Supervisor Vikki Bauer. “But I also see it from their position. I would want control over a landfill that lies right on top of my water supply, too.”

The bottom line is the county needs a new solution for its garbage and it needs it sooner than later. 

And that’s where the difficulty begins.

A new landfill is both difficult to permit and very expensive. Monitoring a landfill for water and air pollution for at least 30 years after it closes is a state mandate—and another expense. 

On top of that, where would a new landfill go? 

Most of Mono County’s land is owned by the federal government of the DWP, and DWP isn’t the only agency that won’t exactly be happy to permit a new landfill.

Then there’s the recently passed state law requiring a large increase in recycling that goes into effect in July. If a new landfill is the solution, it will likely need to include facilities to handle the increased recycling.

Another option includes trucking the county’s garbage to Nevada—it might be less expensive than a brand new landfill, but also comes with its own problems. Think of the recent uptick in gas prices. Those prices would be passed on to customers making this a volatile solution.

In the end, the county supervisors moved the issue closer to the front of their priorities. 

The county commissioned a study several years ago to look at options after the Benton Crossing landfill closed and in fact, that study recommended trucking the county’s waste to Nevada as one of the most cost effective solutions.

The supervisors agreed that given the struggle the county is having to get a lease with DWP renewed for five years, it’s time to act—and act soon.

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