Governor's Inexplicable Midnight Veto of Bipartisan SB 833 Threatens Water Quality and Tribal Sacred Sites

Governor Jerry Brown’s veto of SB 833, just minutes before the midnight deadline last night, is inexplicable in rational terms. 

The bill, sponsored by Senator Juan Vargas from San Diego, would have prohibited siting of a garbage dump on the banks of the San Luis Rey River in northern San Diego County adjacent to sacred sites of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.  It had overwhelming bipartisan support in an age of unparalleled political division, passing both houses of the state legislature almost unanimously. 

Most immediately, it would have prohibited the proposed 300-acre Gregory Canyon dump, a garbage scheme by largely out-of-state investors who bought a piece of property decades ago unfit for a landfill and then circumvented local landfill siting standards by initiative.  It’s a project opposed by 19 tribes and an unusually broad cross-section of interests, from the Farm Bureau to local water agencies to conservationists, because putting a garbage dump next to a river is a recipe for disaster, and putting a garbage dump adjacent to sacred sites is a cultural insult and a desecration.

In his veto message, the Governor expressed “pain” over the “unspeakable injustices that native peoples have endured and the profound importance of their spirituality and connection to the land.”  But he did nothing to stop this latest injustice and proceeded to veto the state legislature’s virtually unanimous action to prevent it.

On the risk to the San Luis Rey River and the drinking water supply of northern San Diego County cities, he cited the duty of the water boards – regional and state – to protect water quality, concluding that a “fully sufficient process” exists for environmental decision-making.  Never mind that those boards – like so many administrative agencies -- frequently fail to fulfill their responsibilities.  Never mind that the legislature, which created those very agencies, has concluded overwhelmingly that this is the wrong place for a garbage dump.

Perhaps most important in his view, the Governor alluded to local initiatives by which the people of San Diego have twice approved the site for the dump.  Although ostensibly a nod to “local control,” this reference is to misleading ballot measures that pitted south San Diego County against less populous north County and overrode the existing zoning and the county’s established siting criteria.  This cynical process is the antithesis of legitimate local control, and it’s bad public policy:  the local regulatory structure was overridden by a self-interested group of investors from someplace else who managed to rezone their land through misuse of the initiative process.

And the result is exactly the wrong location for 30 million tons of garbage.

The good news is that the coalition of interests fighting this uniquely untenable project remains committed to doing whatever it takes – for however long it takes -- to stop it.  Because, in the 21st Century, putting a garbage dump on a river is irrational and unacceptable.  Because desecrating sacred sites is culturally – and categorically -- unconscionable. 

The bad news is that Governor Brown had a chance last night, simply by letting SB 833 take effect, to end this wasteful, decades-long battle.  By intervening instead to sustain the life of this inherently unsustainable project, he has promoted an outdated and unnecessary approach to solid waste management, perpetuated the cultural and racial injustice that his veto message decries, and inevitably endangered the health, welfare, and quality of life of generations to come in southern California.  

The people weep.