A Bad Place For A Garbage Dump In Southern California

Gregory Canyon, San Diego County, CA

A developer in San Diego County, California wants to build a 300-acre garbage dump in Gregory Canyon, one of the most ecologically sensitive and culturally important places in the region.

Gregory Canyon drains into the San Luis Rey River, which winds its way through woodlands and supports vast expanses of riparian (riverbank) habitat.  The river and the aquifers that lie beneath it provide drinking water for tens of thousands of people throughout the northern part of this drought-stricken County.  There's no guarantee the proposed dump's liner won't break, and allow toxic chemicals to run right into the river and poison these critical water sources.

The canyon's eastern wall rises steeply to form Gregory Mountain, a place the Pala Band of Mission Indians and other Luiseño people consider sacred.  The mountain is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and has been used by the Pala and other Luiseños as a place to pray and hold sacred rituals for hundreds of years.  Placing the garbage dump next to Gregory Mountain would desecrate these sacred grounds.

The canyon's coastal sage scrublands and woodlands are home to several endangered species and other wildlife, like the magnificent golden eagles that perch high up on the canyon's walls.  Building the garbage dump here would destroy hundreds of acres of vital wildlife habitat.

My colleague Joel Reynolds and I toured the area recently with local officials and members of the Pala Tribe (I took the photo shown above), and all I could think the whole time was how anyone could think this was a good place for a garbage dump.  I cannot even begin to imagine a worse location, and it turns out the County of San Diego agreed with me back in the late 1980s, when it ranked Gregory Canyon as one of the least appropriate spots in the region to put a landfill.

It wasn't even close.  Gregory Canyon failed seven out of the eight landfill siting criteria set out by the County.  The site is on top of drinking water sources.  It's near important archaeological sites.  It's near an earthquake fault.  It's home to endangered species.  You get the picture.

Game over, right?  Wrong.

Facing certain defeat, the landfill company decided in 1994 to attempt an audacious end-run around the County's site selection process, and use a ballot initiative to authorize a dump in Gregory Canyon if the necessary permits could be obtained.  Almost a million dollars later, the countywide initiative passed and Gregory Canyon was re-zoned for a garbage dump.

Now, fifteen years after their outrageous ballot-box maneuver, the proponents of this ill-advised project still don't have any of the permits they would need to build the dump.  They're currently trying to get what's known as a "Section 404 permit" from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Under Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, the Army Corps is required to approve the placement of fill (construction) material into "waters of the United States" such as streams and wetlands.  The landfill company has applied for a so-called "nationwide permit," which is only supposed to be used for activities with minimal adverse effects on the environment, such as minor maintenance.

A nationwide permit would improperly fast-track the environmental review process and prevent the public from participating in a decision that would have enormous local and regional environmental impacts.  That approach is dead wrong.  Yesterday, we sent a letter to the Army Corps strongly urging them to reject the landfill company's request for a nationwide permit.  This project cries out for the most rigorous and comprehensive scrutiny our environmental laws will allow.

The proponents of this dump are using every trick in the book to keep this seriously flawed project afloat.  But this is a no-brainer - the worst idea to hit San Diego County since a local transportation agency tried to pave over the state park at San Onofre State Beach with a six-lane highway.  NRDC played a key role as part of a vigorous coalition effort that stopped that bad idea in its tracks, and we are hoping to do the same thing here.

About the Authors

Damon Nagami

Senior Attorney and Director, Southern California Ecosystems Project

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