Landfill lawsuits leave locals at a loss

A dozer pushes exposed trash at Chiquita Canyon Landfill. Dan Watson/ The Signal

Changes in the agreement between the Chiquita Canyon landfill and its neighbors have upset both parties, according to legal filings and statements from Castaic residents.

The new deal has left uncertainty with residents and the landfill with arguments about how much is owed, whom should receive it and when they should get it, according to lawsuits filed back and forth between local residents and the landfill’s operators.

Los Angeles County officials appear in the middle as the arbiter of the disputed funds.

The money was slated for community programming, according to agreements that had been in place for years prior to the landfill’s permit renewal that extended its operations last summer, for 30 more years.

The first lawsuit, by the landfill’s operators, challenges the terms of the new conditional use permit issued by the county, county officials said last week.

Landfill representatives disagreed with conditions set forth in their new permit after being granted an extension in July 2017. They subsequently filed a suit in October 2017 challenging 29 of its new CUP’s conditions of approval, including $11.6 million in bridge and thoroughfare fees, according to court documents. The county subsequently issued a notice of violation in December 2017 that claimed the landfill failed to comply on four of the CUP’s conditions, leading to the second lawsuit.

Before the CUP was issued, the Castaic Area Town Council and Val Verde Civic Association had a mitigation agreement with the landfill in exchange for them operating on their land.

The Castaic council formally signed an agreement in October 2014, that the landfill would “make an annual payment to the Chiquita Canyon Castaic Community Benefits Fund… in an amount equal to 30 percent of a pool of available CCL funds generated,” according to the official agreement document.

The fund amount was fixed at the rate of 80 cents per ton of disposed solid waste in a calendar year. The funds would be used for community purposes and educational programming.

The landfill had formed a similar agreement with the Val Verde Civic Association in 1997 that would also give funding directly to the community.

A representative for the VVCA declined comment, citing a lawsuit against Chiquita that the VVCA was a part of, which VVCA members filed shortly after the extension was granted.  

After the county’s extension was granted, the agreements were nullified, said former Castaic Town Councilman Flo Lawrence. The mitigation funding instead would now come directly from the county.

The county’s Department of Public Works charged the landfill on a monthly basis, with the rates at $1.32 per ton for under 2,000 tons per day ranging to $5.28 per ton for 6,000 tons per day, according to terms outlined in the CUP.

“The county for years encouraged us to negotiate directly with Chiquita,” said Lawrence, who was part of negotiations for the 2014 agreement during his time on the council. “Now we have to fill paperwork, and will see a fraction of what’s going to the community before because of bureaucratic red tape. I absolutely lay this at the county’s feet. It was their decision to not have the money go directly to the community.”

The reason the county took charge of funneling funds from Chiquita to the local communities was due to concerns over how the funds were being spent, said Richard Claghorn, principal regional planning assistant for the county.

“I believe the county wanted to have greater oversight of the funds to minimize potential problems,” he said. “The county is not changing the terms of the earlier agreement, per se, and still wants the local communities to help determine how the funds are spent. The new conditions still rely upon the (CATC) to determine how the funds are spent, and the county would expect to follow its recommendations unless there is a valid reason not to do so.”

When asked how the rates being charged to Chiquita were calculated, Claghorn said fees were set by the Department of Public Works, and a similar fee was used for the Lancaster Landfill.

“The purpose is to discourage waste from out of the area and to fund programs and activities as described in the condition,” he said.

Now the legal concerns have raised questions about when the Castaic community is going to get the money it feels it’s owed, according to several Town Council members.

“We were notified about two months ago about a pending lawsuit, and when a lawsuit happens to the county, they usually don’t comment on pending litigation, they’ve been fairly tightlipped about it,” said Bonnie Nikolai, vice president of the CATC. “We’re concerned because Val Verde pays for some of our recreation programs with money from the landfill, so this lawsuit puts our community’s recreation programs slightly in jeopardy. So, we’ve been trying to figure out where to go from here.”

Attorneys for the landfill wrote in the lawsuit that the condition through which the county was charging the landfill, in the community’s place, “unconstitutionally discriminates against communities outside of the Chiquita Canyon area by imposing extra fees on them — violates the Dormant Commerce Clause, and exceeds the County’s police powers, among other faults.” Where the trash that ends up in Chiquita Canyon landfill comes from was frequently a point of discussion during the landfill’s efforts to seek renewal.

A representative for Chiquita Canyon declined to answer questions about claims made by Chiquita Canyon in the lawsuits.


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