Los Angeles and Kern County's Epic Sewage Sludge Battle

Kern County has the sad role of being California's toilet. Kern County receives everything that goes down the drain from households, hospitals, and industry, from one of the largest and most densely populated counties in the country, not Kern but Los Angeles County. The resulting toxic stew of industrial and human sewage sludge is not a pretty thing, and most people in Kern County and their representatives don't want any of it. Unfortunately for citizens of Kern County, Los Angeles is willing to fight -- and fight hard -- to continue dumping sludge in Kern County.

A Toxic Stew

Sewage sludge can contain heavy metals, pesticides, dioxins, flame retardants, pharmaceuticals, perfluorinated compounds, nanoparticles, pathogens, known endocrine disruptors, and more. Of those, only 10 heavy metals out of dozens are regulated in sewage sludge that is applied to land where animal feed is grown as fertilizer. The strictest regulation, which the EPA calls "Class A Biosolids" ("biosolids" is a term the sewage industry made up to make sludge sound more palatable), has the same restrictions on heavy metals, plus two other criteria: it must have no detectable salmonella or fecal coliform, and it must be treated so that it is not attractive to disease-carrying organisms like rats or flies. But this leaves in and unaccounted for numerous other pathogens, as well as an array of heavy metals and other substances like PBDEs concentrated in the resulting sludge.

Kern County Says No More

Prior to 2006, Kern County was the dumping ground for one-third of California's sewage sludge, receiving sludge from Orange County, Los Angeles County, Oxnard and Ventura. Los Angeles sends 750 tons per day alone to Green Acres, a 4,688 acre Kern County operation owned by Los Angeles county that grows corn, wheat, and alfalfa for dairy cattle feed. But in June 2006, an overwhelming majority of Kern County voters passed the Keep Kern Clean Ordinance, a ballot measure that banned application of sewage sludge to land in Kern County. The ban was to begin six months after the vote, in December 2006.

With a ban on applying sewage sludge in Kern County, Los Angeles and Orange Counties planned to send their sludge to the nearest place that would take it: Arizona. L.A. anticipated an increase in sludge disposal costs from $7 million per year to as much as $21 million per year. (This is getting to the heart of the matter, as the scheme to dump the sludge and its contaminants on farmfields is favored by cities because it is cheap compared to the other containment or disposal options. In the past, sludge was dumped in the oceans until environmental groups sued because it was toxic to marine life. Clearly, if it kills the fish, then it's safe enough to put on land where we grow food, right?)

Los Angeles Fights Back

After Kern's sludge ban passed, Los Angeles sued. A few weeks before the ban went into effect, Los Angeles won an injunction, as Judge Gary Allen Feess of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California decided to "temporarily block Kern County from enforcing a ban on the land application of biosolids from urban municipalities until the court rules on the merits of the case." For Kern, that meant that they would have to live with L.A.'s sludge until the case was resolved.

But the next stop for the case was the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled in Kern's favor in 2009 (three years after the sludge ban was initially passed). Kern County was allowed to enforce its sludge ban at this point, but it chose to wait until the legal battle was settled to do so. In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving Kern's victory in place. Case closed, right?

Deja Poo All Over Again

With their court victory in hand, Kern County got ready, once again, to enforce its ban. Without any further legal action, the ban would go into effect in October 2011. Then Los Angeles took them back to court, claiming that a statewide recycling law (the California Integrated Waste Management Act) trumps Kern County's right to ban the application of sewage sludge. With the case back in court, this past June, Tulare County Superior Court judge Lloyd L. Hicks put the ban on hold once again with "a tentative ruling... that Los Angeles sanitation districts and haulers are likely to win their case against Kern County and that the city and county of Los Angeles would be seriously harmed" if the sludge ban was allowed to take effect.

He also found that "Kern County's law was likely to lose in a full court battle and that the costs Los Angeles would suffer from not being able to spread its treated human and industrial waste on Kern County farmland outweighed any perceived harm from flies, odors or leeching of the sludge into groundwater." Got that? Because Los Angeles having to pay more to haul their sludge to Arizona is worse than the "perceived" harm from sewage sludge, Kern County citizens do not have the right to keep Los Angeles County sludge out of their county.

The case is still up in the air, and -- for the time being -- Kern County is still receiving hundreds of tons of L.A.'s sewage sludge each and every day.

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