The Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County have spent a decade and $430 million building a railway system to haul trash to an Imperial Valley landfill, but the system is sitting idle because it is too expensive to use.
Instead, Los Angeles County is dumping its trash in Orange County, where space in the Brea and Irvine landfills is plentiful and half the $80-per-ton cost of using the trash train.
County sanitation officials acknowledge that they miscalculated when planning the trash train, and they say it wonâ€™t be economical enough to use for at least five years, maybe not for 15 years. And an independent environmental engineer who monitors trash markets in California said it could take even longer.
â€œThe market is over-saturated with capacity and is extremely competitive,â€ said Evan Edgar of Edgar & Associates Inc., a Sacramento-based environmental engineering and lobbying firm. â€œSouthern California has 2 billion cubic yards of remaining disposal capacity that could easily last the next 100 years.â€
Meanwhile, the sanitation districtsâ€™ new rail stations, bridges and track that connect the Puente Hills trash-sorting facility to Union Pacific rail lines running 200 miles into the Imperial County will remain on standby.
Estimated cost: $300,000 per year, said Charles Boehmke, head of solid waste management for the district.
The districtâ€™s 4,000-square-acre Mesquite Regional Landfill, near the desert gold mine in Imperial County, will remain empty, save for a single geologist in charge of overseeing the property.
In some respects, L.A. sanitationâ€™s loss will be Orange Countyâ€™s gain. The L.A. districts will pay $15 million each year to dump 648,210 tons of trash into Orange County landfills under a two-year contract that began last month.
PLANNING THE TRASH TRAIN
When the Sanitation Districts of Los Angeles County started considering the rail system in 1991, the county appeared headed for a trash crisis.
Landfill space was running out, getting more space looked unlikely, and the public didnâ€™t want more dumps in L.A. county anyway.
Dumping the trash in Orange County didnâ€™t seem like a viable option, either.
So the district came up with a plan: raise fees for trash haulers who used Puente Hills, L.A. Countyâ€™s largest landfill, and use the money to help pay for a railway system running to a huge new desert landfill that the district planned to construct near Glamis in Imperial County.
As disposal costs at Puente Hills increased â€“ 70 percent between 2005 and 2012 â€“ trash haulers passed the extra costs on to residents and businesses. Residents saw increases on their monthly bills that varied according to the terms of their city contracts: La Puenteâ€™s rates climbed 16 percent between 2007 and 2010; Duarteâ€™s increased 23 percent between 2008 and 2014, and Downey residentsâ€™ bills increased 37 percent between 2007 and 2012, city records show.
But major changes in the trash markets happened after the district started saving up for the rail project in 2005.
As rates increased for Los Angeles County communities, other landfills got permits to expand their business, opening up lower-cost alternatives for trash haulers. At the same time, the economic downturn caused consumers to buy and build less, meaning less trash overall.
Los Angeles Countyâ€™s disposal needs dropped 21 percent from 2008 to 2009, according to district records.
â€œNobody saw that coming,â€ Boehmke said of the trash reduction. â€œThat reduction was huge as far as market changes and the impact on the need for waste-by-rail,â€ he added.
Today, the decade long construction project is almost finished, but itâ€™s too expensive to actually use.
The economy and increased recycling efforts are among the reasons the districtâ€™s landfills havenâ€™t filled up as fast as expected. But they are not the only reasons. The countyâ€™s plan to increase fees for haulers also was partially to blame, because it drove cities and haulers to seek cheaper trash space.
The average daily tonnage sent by Los Angeles County residents to landfills decreased 41 percent overall between 2005 and 2012, according to county records. The drop sent to the districtâ€™s landfills was even more dramatic, with landfills receiving 46 to 67 percent less trash during the same period, records show.
Glendale is among the cities looking to avoid â€“ or at least delay â€“ using the sanitation districtâ€™s expensive rail system. The city is working to expand its own dump, the Scholl Canyon Landfill.
â€œIt makes a lot more sense for them (Glendale) to manage their disposal at a landfill that is right there, which is much more cost-effective and with much less environmental impacts than transporting it long distances,â€ he said.
As for the trash train, â€œThe timing didnâ€™t work well for us in this case â€“ it changed on us,â€ Boehmke said. â€œBut we still have assets we hold as important for long term disposal for Los Angeles County.â€