Chiquita Canyon, LA County face lawsuit over stench 

Chiquita Canyon Landfill. Eddy Martinez/The Signal.

A group of residents filed a class action lawsuit this week against Chiquita Canyon Landfill and L.A. County, seeking to shut down the facility near Castaic, according to a Val Verde lawyer who filed the lawsuit, saying Wednesday she joined the fight to support neighbors who’ve had problems for years. 

The lawsuit, which names more than two dozen residents as plaintiffs, alleges the situation at the landfill, which has generated around 1,800 odor complaints since January, represents a private and public nuisance, as well gross negligence and trespassing. 

“The landfill needs to close — it’s a serious health and safety issue for our community,” said attorney Oshea Orchid, who said she moved to Val Verde in 2020 and quickly learned of concerns residents have had due to the landfill, including health issues, for years, she said in a phone interview Wednesday. 

“And L.A. County needs to take swift action to remedy this,” according to Orchid, whose firm, Public Employees Legal, has experience representing plaintiffs primarily against the government, including school districts, she said. 

Orchid said she was not planning to stop at the lawsuit, which was accepted by the court Monday. She was also planning to file a California Environmental Quality Act writ and a government claim against the county in an effort to shut down the landfill. 

Steve Cassulo, district manager for Chiquita Canyon Landfill, which is operated by Waste Connections, declined to comment on the lawsuit Wednesday.  

“Chiquita does not comment on pending litigation,” he wrote in a prepared statement. “Chiquita, along with its various regulatory oversight agencies, is working diligently in addressing any odors emanating from the landfill, including identifying underlying causes and communicating openly and transparently with the community.” 

The calls for action have grown in recent weeks as the radius of the stench emanating from the facility has increased. Residents report the odor as most prevalent between the hours of around 9 p.m. to 9 a.m. based on public testimony at a recent town hall.  

Chiquita is required to keep a log of the complaints and subsequent violations on its website, which indicates there were violations found every day in August except Aug. 8 and Aug. 20 as of this story’s publication. The South Coast Air Quality Management District, which is responsible for receiving, substantiating and logging the complaints, issues a notice of violation after six complaints are substantiated in any 24-hour period, according to Larry Israel, a South Coast AQMD inspector who seemed to be well-known and liked by a number of residents who called him out by name during a Community Advisory Committee meeting held earlier in the month

After the complaint is substantiated, the AQMD stops investigating related complaints in the same 24-hour period, he said at the Aug. 15 meeting. 

The lawsuit reports a history of Chiquita Canyon Landfill, starting with its county approval in 1965 — a couple of years before the “Awesometown” community of Valencia would be announced by what was then known as The Newhall Land and Farming Co. — up until its 30-year renewal in 2017, which was also opposed by area residents. 

The lawsuit also cites the number of complaints and various regulatory issues the landfill’s oversight agencies have found this year. 

In February, the landfill was cited for its failure to provide laboratory analysis for landfill gases from the preceding 12 months as required, the lawsuit states. In April, the landfill was cited for failing to run its gas-collection system “so that there are not leaks that exceed 500 (parts per million by volume, total organic compounds) measured as methane at any component under positive pressure.” 

On May 17, the violations began, meaning the complaints had started to become substantiated. 

Bob Lewis, Castaic Area Town Council president, who also chairs the CAC that held the Aug. 15 meeting, said he wanted to know why the landfill hadn’t been more proactive about the problems and concerns prior to all of the violations. 

Landfill officials acknowledged at the August CAC meeting that they did not have a way to measure the level of dimethyl sulfide, the gas believed to be responsible for the smell, but that the company was working to hire a toxicologist and implement a better monitoring system.  

Without knowing the levels of exposure, according to an expert on chemical reactions in a recent interview, it’s difficult to know the level of concern that residents should have. 

Steven Howse, one of the residents named as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he’s been a resident since 1998 and dealing with this for a really long time, but “this is by far the worst it’s ever, ever been.” 

“I don’t understand all of the stuff that’s going on as far as the health effects,” Howse said Aug. 15 to the committee, “but what I do know is that I’ve smelled it in my house really, really bad. I’ve had my wife walk outside and literally vomit on the front sidewalk within seconds of smelling (the stench).” 

When asked to describe the smell, one resident, who lives directly on the other side of the canyon from the landfill, said, “(The smell is) exactly like what you’d expect, if you left your garbage out.” 

Howse, who said he smells trash in the morning and landfill gas at night, raised the issue to the county as to why it’s not enforcing the landfill’s conditional use permit, which sets a limit for notices the landfill can reach in a month.  

A notice of violation on Chiquita’s website from L.A. County Planning Director Amy Bodek dated Aug. 18 notes: “Chiquita Canyon LLC is in violation of Condition 12 of the (conditional use permit) as it has received 44 Notices of Violation between May 17, 2023 and Aug. 16, 2023, for violating Southern California Air Quality Management District Rule 402 and California Health & Safety Code Section 41700 in relation to nuisance odors that are emanating from the landfill.” 

At that meeting, Miki Esposito, assistant director of county Public Works, said she was aware that was the “elephant in the room,” referring to the county’s regulatory role and its oversight responsibility for the landfill. 

She told frustrated residents that while shutting down the landfill was an option the county had at its discretion, the focus now is on remediating the problem, adding that, from what officials know, there is no guarantee the smell would stop if the landfill were shut down tomorrow.   

“I just want you to know we, as a county, are looking at every option,” she said. “Every option is on the table. But we are hyperfocused on finding the root cause of the problem so that we can develop effective remedial measures.” 

During an Aug. 10 town hall Chiquita hosted, Cassulo said the source of the smell was the improper handling of waste decades earlier by prior operators of the landfill, which was creating landfill gas at a rate that exceeded the facility’s capability for capturing it, resulting in a smell that, driven by local winds, has been reported several miles away from the landfill. 

He added that he hoped to have a flare in place by October that he said should help with the smell. The landfill was going through a regulatory process needed in order to secure the permits for the equipment. 

Fifth District Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the SCV, wrote in an email Wednesday to The Signal that the lawsuit “isn’t surprising” and that she wants to see the owners of the landfill take accountability and find solutions just as the residents do. 

She authorized the creation of a task force in response to residents’ concerns last month, as the proliferation of odor complaints became a daily occurrence.  

“Ultimately, stopping the stench is the landfill owner’s responsibility. I will continue pushing for county and state regulatory agencies to have Waste Connections do everything possible to make that happen,” Barger wrote. “In a few days, I will meet leadership from South Coast AQMD to discuss our efforts to both hold the landfill’s owner accountable and equip Waste Connections with the tools needed to stop the odors. At my direction, the county is also continuing to work directly with CalRecycle to pinpoint the root cause of the odor issue. We won’t give up until this issue is resolved.” 

The lawsuit also notes the area’s historical significance, which includes Native American settlements dating back to the year 450, and more recently the Val Verde community’s place in history as “the Black Palm Springs,” with its popularity starting in the Roaring 1920s and becoming known outside the area by the 1940s, with celebrities like Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and James Earl Jones Sr. among the names with ties to the area. 

The area started to become more of a residential community that’s now also considered a part of Hasley Hills in the 1950s, according to the lawsuit, before the area became more integrated as the result of the civil rights movement the following decade.  

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