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Pile It On

Tajiguas Patrolled by Birds and Ready to Expand

Jeff and Myla
Falconer Jeff Diaz gets ready to release Myla, a 14-year-old
female saker falcon (they come from Asia), as a trash truck dumps
fresh garbage at the Tajiguas Landfill.  Diaz employs three falcons
and a dog to scare away scavenging gulls.

by Cathy Murillo

Everything has to go somewhere, a well-known ecologist once said.  For the hundreds of tons of trash generated every day on the South Coast, the final destination is the county-owned Tajiguas Landfill, located in a coastal canyon near Gaviota.
   Slated for a $30 million expansion, the landfill is the subject of a recently released final Environmental Impact Report (EIR), which details how 15 more years of discards will be dumped and buried through 2020.  At the same time county solid waste officials have made public this much-anticipated document, they have declared victory over the scores of pesky gulls who daily scavenge the dump for edible tidbits.
   For the last three months, Jeff Diaz, a professional falconer, has flown birds of prey around the site to scare off the trash-picking gulls.  It's a subject offering a whole lot more fun than the EIR's volumes of dense techno-speak, and the falcon program's success may just give the expansion project the wings the county needs for approval.
   "These birds are amazing," said Mark Schleich, the county's king of solid waste, standing at the landfill last week, watching a trained falcon fly directly at some gulls trying to land on exposed garbage.  Instinctively frightened by the predatory bird, the gulls scatter helter-skelter, finally perching nervously on a nearby hillside.  "When we first started this program, there were thousands of gulls out here," Schleich said.  Indeed, the remaining gulls - stupid, brave, or really hungry - numbered about 30 on this day.
   The falcons have done more for the landfill than just reduce the number of nuisance birds.  They have settled a long-standing question about water quality in the area surrounding Tajiguas.  Since the raptors have been patrolling the dump, the Arroyo Quemada lagoon - located one canyon over from Tajiguas - has tested clean for bacterial contamination.  County officials say the connection is easy to make: dump-attracted gulls have been resting in the fresh water lagoon, leaving behind lots of poop, and causing the pollution.
   Tajiguas is not leaking contaminated water into adjacent watersheds, they said.  Nor can it be blamed for the consistant beach closures at the Arroyo Quemada shore, the result of tests conducted by county Environmental Health and by clean-water watchdog Heal the Bay.  Armed with this apparent absolution, Tajiguas operators are hoping to take their EIR to the county Board of Supervisors next month and convince the politicians to certify it.  After that, they will apply for extension permits from two state agencies - the Regional Water Quality Control Board and the California Integrated Waste Management Board.
   As Myla (pronounced mee-lah), a 14-year-old female saker falcon, floated over the landfill, Schleich looked up appreciatively.  His hopes for winning the approval of elected officials, permitting agencies, members of the public - even of Tajiguas detractors - were soaring as high as his feathered coworker above.

STILL SKEPTICAL:  Not so fast, says Bob Hazard of the Gaviota Coast Conservancy.  Hazard believes the county has not produced concrete evidence that leachate (water that has traveled through piles of rotting discards) is being controlled and kept on-site.  "The compelling issue is still the GeoSolv report," said the Gaviota Coast resident, referring to a study commissioned by the conservancy, Heal the Ocean, and Surfrider Foundation.
   Geologists with GeoSolv, a private consulting firm, opined that fractured rock beneath the landfill may be providing a conduit by which leachate is moving outside the site.  Their report - forwarded to the county and to the regional water board - suggests Tajiguas operators should install more monitoring wells to catch any leaks.  The release of the GeoSolv report last December packed a punch because it seemed supported by the mess at Arroyo Quemada.
   Loud and determined landfill critics had long pointed to the beach closures as proof Tajiguas was badly operated and its data was faulty.  Despite a DNA study showing the bacteria in the creek mouth was coming from bird feces, the anti-Tajiguas fervor reached a crescendo when Arroyo Quemada was declared Southern California's dirtiest beach by Heal the Bay.
   Even now, with 12 straight weeks of Arroyo Quemada receiving an "A+" cleanliness grade from that same enviro group, Hazard and other skeptics are not persuaded.  "There's been no rainfall," he said.  The surf usually tests better when there's no runoff.
   Besides, there are other concerns, added Hazard, again referencing the GeoSolv report.  The existing landfill is overly saturated with water, and it does not comply with a law that requires a five-foot separation between the highest level of groundwater and the lowest level of buried trash, he said.
   County officials have dealt with the GeoSolv report in two ways; first, by rebutting it in the final EIR document.  Then they had their own geologist respond to it, charge by charge, and send his report to the regional water board, which had demanded information related to GeoSolv's findings.  Reached for comment, water board hydrogeologist Hector Hernandez said he has not yet reviewed the county's rejoinder, but will do so by the end of this week.
   As for the EIR, GeoSolv and Tajiguas critics will get a chance to pick apart the defense presented in it by solid-waste staff.  A hearing before the county supervisors is scheduled for August 6.  "There's nothing new, it's just a rehash," Hazard said.  "The EIR is inadequate."

THROW-AWAY SOCIETY:  The Board of Supervisors is likely to okay the EIR and, ultimately, the expansion for a variety of reasone, not the least of which is political.  Three years ago, the board decided to "close" Tajiguas after the proposed 15-year extension.  Let's find another site, the policy makers said.
   A fiasco ensued when 70-odd potential sites were identified and notification letters sent to property owners.  Most of the sites were in north Santa Barbara County because a landfill has to be in a semi-remote area - the South Coast was too urbanized.  Political relations between north and south were already strained and the possibility of trash from Santa Barbara and Goleta being dumped on northern ranch lands sent the acrimony into overdrive.
   So the siting of a new landfill was put on hold.  Since then, the challenge of identifying long-term disposal solutions has been punted to the Multi-Jurisdictional Solid Waste Task Group - a collective of elected officials from the county and each of the county's eight cities.  According to Goleta City Councilmember Jonny Wallis, who belongs to the task group, there's been marked cooperation among the politicians as everyone seems to grasp the dire need for sharing costs and burdens.  "I don't think that anyone wants to see a dump sited in every city," said Wallis, who believes Tajiguas is a "very clean operation."
   Ultimately, economics may play a part in the fate of Tajiguas.  Generating $6.5 million in annual tipping-fee revenues, the landfill is self-sustaining and its operation break even.  A new landfill will cost an estimated $125 million.
   As the multi-jurisdictional group tackles the big-picture problems - possible landfill sites, recycling and reuse, green waste disposal, and new technologies to process sewage plant biosolids - Tajiguas officials prepare for a run through the permitting gauntlet, which may come down to a battle of the expert geologists.  It will be one more round of talking trash.

Mark and Mark
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