Gary Horton | To Clear the Air About the Dump …

Gary Horton
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“Did you smell that God-awful odor last night? Where did that come from?” 

For years, comments such as this were largely restricted to the unfortunate folks in Val Verde too long subjected to Chiquita Canyon Landfill odors. Pity these long-suffering folks who’ve long complained without substantial effect. 

Nowadays, such are the same comments regularly heard between friends living and working adjacent to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill outside of Val Verde. The Valencia Commerce Center business park. Castaic, at large. Also, increasingly, are similar complaints from a far-wider Santa Clarita Valley geography. More and more folks from a widening area are affronted by sickening smells, emanating from the landfill area, usually during evenings and early mornings. 

Questions abound as these repugnant odors spread more widely over the northwest areas of our valley. Folks who’ve never noticed or smelled the landfill before are accosted with putrid odors and wonder where it’s coming from. Many think it’s sewer gas – perhaps a broken or backed-up pipe, or a natural gas leak somewhere. Some have conspiracy theories; others hear often-inaccurate information from friends and neighbors. But almost all who’ve been affected report a repellent response – from minor to severe. 

The purpose of this column is to provide basic information to the community at large so you understand what’s going on and what you can or should do in response. 

I was appointed by Supervisor Kathryn Barger to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill Community Advisory Committee 18 months ago. Our job in the committee is to act as facilitators between our community and the landfill and the county, and to assist in steering accountability toward our community’s best interests. Initially, the position was a sleepy backwater, with relatively few community comments. All that changed about a year ago when Val Verde residents first noticed a startling increase in odor emissions from the landfill into their community. Over the past year, Val Verde, and now, residents and workers from areas increasingly distant from the landfill, have filed thousands of complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District, leading to over 100 formal AQMD citations to the landfill ownership, Waste Connections. (It should be noted that the immediate problem stems from the oldest areas of the landfill, which had been closed before Waste Connections took ownership. While Waste Connections didn’t cause the source problem, they apparently did buy the liability for past and future risk exposures.) 

At first, the odor was believed to be a non-toxic gas called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS. You will hear that name thrown around a quite bit as this situation unfolds. DMS commonly occurs in nature, and you may know the smell from cooking cabbage, in some truffles, or perhaps from rotting seaweed. It’s often called “the odor of the sea” – and in higher concentrations, simply smells like rotting meat. Indeed, a plant that emits DMS odors is called, “dead-horse arum.” You get the drift, so to speak. It really stinks. 

Human noses are extremely sensitive to DMS, even at very low and “non-toxic” levels. While noted as medically interaction non-toxic, it can still be nausea- and headache-inducing. As the year wore on, Val Verde residents increasing complained of a putrid smell causing headaches, nausea, and in some cases, worse. For months, DMS was considered the sole and non-toxic cause of the increased odors. Now, however, toxicology reports show an increasing list of chemical emissions. DMS is no longer the sole culprit. Other substances may be of greater health concern.  

L.A. County quickly formed an all-encompassing task force to head up its critical response. They brought all pertinent county departments to jump in, helping dig into causes, available response, and to create a (relatively small) Val Verde financial mitigation fund. L.A. County is working with the AQMD to hold Waste Connections accountable to mitigate the rapidly increasing problem. And this, to greater or lesser effect: A non-reactive (pun intended) assessment of Waste Connections’ response is held by many as, “slow, self-protective” and, “finally, getting up to speed.” 

From flares, pumps, piping, regrading and emission membranes, Waste Connections is (now) performing what appears to be substantive response on-site. Whether this will be soon efficacious remains unknown. At this date, the full extent of what is going on deep below in this early area of the landfill remains a partial mystery. By Waste Connections’ own admission, “This is going to get worse before it gets better.” Most sources agree that mitigation and cessation of odors may take from two to four years. Some say longer. That’s plainly asking a lot from Val Verde residents, some who face life-altering conditions. As it “gets worse before it gets better,” workers and residents outside Val Verde are increasingly impacted.  

So, what to do if you are affected by offensive odors or are interested in getting accurate information? Your best overall source for reporting, information and relief options is the L.A. County website found by googling, “Chiquita Canyon Landfill LA County.” The top hit leads you to the county’s one-stop location with links to report incidents, documents, reports and oversight meetings: planning.lacounty.gov/public-hearings-and-meetings/chiquita-canyon-landfill.

Your vigilance and involvement are important as landfill emissions remain a long-term concern for our community at large. Reporting and public comments keep our local public agencies, Waste Connections, and now, the national EPA focused. Squeaky wheels eventually get grease (it’s government), and accurate and timely reporting to the AQMD is crucial.  

Seek accurate, valid information as the situation unfolds. It is my belief that, risk-management posturing aside, all parties are now committed to solving the present landfill reaction problem. Your vigilance promotes pressure, motivation and fair response by all. 

Gary Horton’s “Full Speed to Port!” has appeared in The Signal since 2006. The opinions expressed in his column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Signal or its editorial board.

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