Tribes vs. trash: The tangled tale of a landfill battle

After a more than 10-year hiatus, the political and legal battle over building a landfill near the Pala Indian reservation in San Diego County has returned to the state Legislature.

The fight over siting the Gregory Canyon landfill has lasted more than 17 years, spawned the most expensive county ballot measure in San Diego history and sparked numerous legal tussles, several of which reached the state Supreme Court.

“It’s a very long story because they’re trying to put a square peg in a very round hole,” said Ted Griswold, a Carlsbad lawyer assisting the Pala Indians.

This latest legislative go-round is a bill by Sen. Juan Vargas, a San Diego Democrat, who previously supported the landfill but now wants it blocked.

Opponents of his bill – some of whom oppose the 308-acre landfill – say the measure authorizes the state to supercede local planning which, in the case of the environmental review and permitting of Gregory Canyon, has gone on for 12 years.

“The impact of this kind of action throughout the state is very concerning to people in the construction industry,” said Nancy Chase, a spokeswoman for Gregory Canyon Ltd., the landfill developer.

“This could happen to any builder of a large infrastructure project. You go through every step of (environmental review) – in this case twice – dot the i’s and cross the t’s and then everything can be undone by an act of the Legislature.”

Or as Sen. Chris Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat, says:

“Whatever the locals want to do we’re now going to intervene and force them to do the opposite at the same time we’re talking about local control, realignment and putting government closer to the people. I don’t think this bill reflects the sincerity of that discussion.”

Supporters of the measure, which include 15 other Indian bands in addition to the Pala Band of Mission Indians, say that Gregory Mountain above the canyon is a sacred site and construction of the landfill – besides potentially threatening the water quality of the nearby San Luis Rey River – amounts to desecration.

“The biggest issue for Pala is this being a sacred site. There are a few protections both at the federal and state level to consult with tribes but ultimately if the agency decides the project will go through it goes through,” said Shasta Gaughen, Pala’s environmental director. “We have no other choice but to pursue this legislation.”

Vargas’ bill, SB 833, is specifically aimed at preventing construction of Gregory Canyon by prohibiting a landfill within 1,000 feet of the San Luis Rey River and within 1,000 feet of a Native American site. While the bill doesn’t mention Gregory Canyon by name, the proposed project meets both of the bill’s criteria.

The Pala Band of Mission Indians, whose reservation lies on the other side of Gregory Mountain, has fought the project in court, at the ballot box and through legislation, Vargas’ being the latest.

Backers of Gregory Canyon claim the easy movement of Vargas’ bill through the Legislature – it passed the Senate with only two other senators besides Kehoe voting “no” – is a “perfect example of the influence of tribal money,” as Chase put it.

Combined, the 16 bands of Indians supporting the Vargas bill – plus the California Tribal Business Alliance, another backer – made nearly $6.6 million in campaign contributions during the last two-year legislative session and the first quarter of 2011, state contribution reports show.

For its part, Gregory Canyon Ltd., says it has spent more than $60 million so far on the project, which still requires several permits before it can break ground.
As a San Diego City Councilman, Vargas supported the landfill and wrote in opposition to previous legislation in 2000 with the same objective as his current bill.
Vargas said in an interview that he switched his views after visiting the site.

“I was shocked to find out that it literally is right on the river where they want to build this dumb dump,” Vargas told Capitol Weekly.

“The way it had been explained to me certainly through all the propaganda that they had was that this place was way out in the middle of nowhere, nowhere near the river and already on disturbed land.

“None of that is true. It’s actually right on the river and the disturbed part of the land is a very small portion of it. It makes absolutely no sense to put a dump right on a river. I can’t think of dumber place to put it.”

As to concerns over groundwater contamination and leaching into the San Luis Rey River, Gregory Canyon says its state-of-the-art nearly 8-foot thick liner system is built to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency standards for hazardous waste landfills, even though no hazardous waste will be accepted at Gregory Canyon.

Pala says no landfill ever created hasn’t leaked.

If built, Gregory Canyon would be the first new landfill in Southern California in over 30 years, backers say.

The landfill would be located on 1,770 acres near Route 76 on the western slope of Gregory Mountain – roughly 20 miles northeast of Oceanside.

On the other side of the peak is the 12,000-plus acre Pala reservation. The reservation was created for the Cupeno and Luiseno (both take tildes) Indians who have united as the Palas.

For the Luiseno, Gregory Mountain – “Chokla” – is one of the places where the spirit “Takwish” lives. The same spirit that Tahquitz Peak in Riverside County is named after.
If Takwish were to alight on Chokla today and look east he would see the Pala Casino Spa and Resort with its 10-story, 507-room hotel, 10,000-square-foot day spa and 10 restaurants.

Gregory Canyon proponents say that the landfill won’t violate any sacred sites, a conclusion courts examining the project’s environmental impact reports have shared.
The saga of Gregory Canyon began in the 1980s when San Diego supervisors scouted for a landfill site in North County. San Diego’s existing  landfills are in the central and southern parts of the county.

Then owned by Waste Management Inc., Gregory Canyon was one of the finalists although county staff raised concerns about its potential impact on native sites.

Even if county supervisors chose the site, negative publicity from an audit by the San Diego District Attorney caused Waste Management to abandon development of Gregory Canyon.

The property was sold to a group of investors who saw an opportunity for long-term profit over the projected 30-year life of the landfill.

To jumpstart that process, the project’s backers placed Proposition C on the countywide ballot in 1994 to change county zoning laws to permit a landfill at Gregory Canyon. The proposition also pledged the dedication of more than 1,400 acres of the parcel to open space.

Pala counters that not building the landfill would generate even more open space and that the Vargas bill interferes with the local planning process no more than Proposition C did.
Supporters of the initiative spent $1 million. The proposition was approved with 68 percent of the vote.

Pala filed a legal challenge. Both the trial and appellate court upheld Proposition C.   

In 1999, a draft environmental impact report was circulated for comment. One year later, Pala introduced legislation, AB 2752, to kill Gregory Canyon.

The Legislature approved the measure – a likely re-run with the Vargas bill.

 But Gov. Gray Davis vetoed the 2000 measure. < /p>

“I am a firm believer in following an established process.  Landfill proponents placed an initiative before the voters of San Diego County nearly six years ago.  The voters responded with more than two-thirds supporting the designation of Gregory Canyon as a landfill site,” Davis wrote in his veto message.  

“The courts have refused to nullify that decision.  I am loath to overturn a vote of the electorate and the decision of two courts of law.”

After the final environmental impact report was approved in 2003, Pala and others sued.

Then, in 2004, Pala placed Proposition B on the countywide ballot to overturn 1994’s Proposition C, spending $6 million on the “yes” campaign. Gregory Canyon’s backers spent $4 million, qualifying Proposition B as the county’s most expensive ballot campaign.

Pala lost 64 percent to 36 percent.

Following that defeat, whatever approvals Gregory Canyon received, Pala challenged them in court. In March 2010, an appellate court upheld a lower court ruling saying Gregory Canyon’s environmental impact report was adequate.   

Pala appealed to the state Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.

The fight will continue unless Gov. Jerry Brown signs Vargas’ bill or Gregory Canyon either wins or is denied its remaining operating permits and Pala’s avenues for appeal are exhausted.

The last permit would be issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers sometime in 2012, project backers say.  

But for Pala there is no compromise.

“You can’t mitigate having the landfill in the wrong place,” says Griswold.

Gregory Canyon’s developers are resigned to the continuation of their protracted battle.

“These projects take a long time. They take a lot of fortitude and a lot of money,” said Chase. “Like most large infrastructure projects – freeways, water storage and landfills – they’re things everybody needs but nobody wants near them.”

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