Almost no information is available to voters about Proposition A. The East Otay Mesa Recycling Collection Center and Landfill Ordinance, a countywide proposition on the June 8 ballot, requires a simple majority to pass. Aside from approving a new landfill, the proposal will rezone 450 acres and amend the San Diego County General Plan. Because the proposition has been buried in silence, many voters will be divining rather than reasoning when it comes time to vote on this measure.
All landfill proposals raise delicate environmental questions, not only because of the potential for water pollution and methane-gas buildup but because of the traffic created. Will the air quality of East Otay Mesa be compromised by the area’s many new ozone-generating activities? Is another landfill necessary? Whom would the landfill serve? Why is this land-use decision being made by the ballot box?
David Wick, president of National Enterprises, which owns the site, brought the initiative forward and proposes to be the developer of the recycling center and class III solid waste landfill. The facility would include a lined landfill, a leachate collection system (a process to siphon off moisture), a chipping and grinding area, and more. According to the county counsel’s ballot analysis, the eastern Otay Mesa site “is approximately 2 miles east of the Siempre Viva Road exit from Interstate 905, one quarter mile from Loop Road and east of planned State Route 11.” State Route 11 will extend from SR-905 to the proposed Otay Mesa East Port of Entry.
Several years ago, Wick envisioned building an international raceway on portions of this land. According to a December 29, 2007 Los Angeles Times article, the raceway was to be on 1050 acres “owned by Wick and his partner, Roque De La Fuente.” Plans fell through and the partners sued the federal government, claiming that new border-protection strategies had funneled illegal immigrants onto the land and that Border Patrol was a constant presence.
In a recent interview, Wick filled in some of the blanks about the proposed landfill. He stressed the need for a landfill in San Diego County. He pointed out that “right now in the County of San Diego there are three main landfills — Miramar, Otay, and Sycamore. And those landfills have exceeded their original lives as contemplated when they were permitted. The reason they’re operational today still, and still have several more years to go, is because the operators of those landfills have gone to their municipalities and obtained extensions by increasing the elevation on which the landfill can operate. That’s why we have a lot of Mount Trashmores around the county,” Wick said. He believes that the county will need a new landfill by 2020 or 2025 and that it’s best to plan ahead.
A common concern regarding landfills is the origin of the trash and the distance it’s trucked. Would the East Otay Mesa landfill receive trash from outside San Diego County? “In fact,” Wick said, “the focus is really on the trash of South Bay.”
If Prop A passes, he said, “The next step for us is to analyze our options for how to obtain a permit. We need to make a decision if we’re going to do that on our own or partner up with another landfill operator or a trash hauler in the area or a municipality.” But when asked what municipality National Enterprises might partner with, rather than name a South Bay city, Wick responded the City of San Diego. The City of San Diego is obligated to pick up residential trash, Wick said. “Maybe there’s a possible transaction there where we could save the City’s general fund millions of dollars by giving them a place to dispose of trash less expensive than the current contracts they have with current landfill operators.”
Wick is no stranger to the problems associated with a landfill. A subsidiary of National Enterprises owns an old county landfill in National City, once known as the Duck Pond Landfill. The property was purchased, according to Wick, in 1997–98, long after the landfill had closed. After acquiring it through a foreclosure, Wick, along with the City of National City and the Community Development Commission of the City of National City, were served with a cleanup and abatement order by the California Regional Water Quality Control Board. The site had severe problems with subsidence, or sinking, and methane-gas leaks. About the abatement order, Wick stated, “We weren’t the discharger. We got named on the order because we were in ownership of the property. The order exists today, and the site is being managed per the LEA [Solid Waste Local Enforcement Agency] of the County of San Diego. A methane-gas recovery system is in place. It’s a very successful project today.”
The eastern Otay Mesa landfill site, according to Wick, is perfect because “there are very few residents, because its topography is a bowl, the geology is mostly clay that acts as a barrier for seepage, and there are no water issues — no wells, no groundwater — shown in the studies we have seen.”
San Diego’s topography — a coastal basin — contributes to air quality issues. The San Ysidro Mountains, which lie east of Otay Mesa, create a barrier that impedes the escape of air pollution. According to Robert Reider of the San Diego Air Pollution Control Board, San Diego is already in “nonattainment” with state and federal ozone standards, meaning we do not meet the standards. Last fall, about a mile northeast of the proposed landfill, operations began at the Otay Mesa Energy Center, whose emissions are remediated off-site. (The plant emits nitrogen oxides, precursors of ozone pollution, which are offset by an emission-reduction program.) Nearby, a proposed rock quarry now in the permitting process could generate up to 465 truck trips a day. And by the end of the decade, 25,000 vehicles per day are expected to use the third border crossing, which will open in 2015. Proposition A does not offer an estimate of how many truck trips per day would be made to the landfill.
Asked if the San Diego Air Pollution Control Board — comprising the Board of Supervisors — is looking at the concentration of ozone-producing activities planned for eastern Otay Mesa, Reider replied that the board does look at the larger picture every few years using a modeling method. But the permitting process is project-specific and does not look at the whole picture. “On a localized level, landfills must receive an air quality permit from us,” Reider said, “and the modeling must show that that project itself is not going to cause or exacerbate a violation. Then we pull back, and the air quality plan looks at everything in toto to see if ozone standards can still be met by the deadline. The last plan was done several years ago.”
Land-use decisions made by the ballot box instead of by the board of supervisors may ultimately create more problems. Though the San Diego County Taxpayers Association declined to respond to questions and has taken no position on Proposition A, the organization’s website offers an analysis. The analysis begins, “[W]e generally do not recommend or support ballot box planning.” Further along, the association says, “Directly amending the County General Plan allows the developer to avoid an approval process through which the County would evaluate the merit of the project based on General Plan goals and policies.” The website continues, “The proposed amendment to the County Zoning Ordinance would designate the site as a ‘by right’ use.… This would limit the County’s ability to impose requirements related to infrastructure improvements, environmental mitigation, and operation practices.”
Wick foresees that the third border crossing will be a boon to the landfill, providing roads and other infrastructure. As for environmental considerations, Wick says, “We have to go through a complete CEQA [California Environmental Quality Act] analysis.… We’re going to have to mitigate all the traffic and greenhouse gases.”
Some have likened the East Otay Mesa landfill project to the Gregory Canyon Landfill project, approved by voters 16 years ago. The San Diego County Taxpayers Association suggests the two projects might have analogous trajectories. “In 1994, the Gregory Canyon Landfill project similarly asked voters to approve the rezoning of a potential waste disposal site without going through the County’s review and permitting procedures. The project has since been delayed on numerous occasions due to lawsuits regarding proper environmental mitigation.”