An obscure zoning case over a west- side garbage dump has turned into a twisted version of David and Goliath, prompting Maricopa County officials to accuse El Mirage of a double-cross that wreaks havoc with the environment.
The county is steamed over a deal paving the way for Browning-Ferris Industries (BFI), one of the nation's biggest waste-disposal conglomerates, to open a dump on 320 acres lining the Agua Fria River in El Mirage. Under an agreement reached last month between El Mirage and Ken Boyce, the operator of the existing El Mirage landfill, Boyce will close his dump if BFI obtains the necessary approval to open its dump.
El Mirage struck the deal to settle a lawsuit brought several years ago by Boyce, who has insisted that the city either buy him out or relocate his business. Boyce is to receive an undisclosed "finder's fee" from BFI in exchange for obtaining the agreement with the city, BFI officials say.
The proposed new El Mirage dump would be eleven miles closer to the core of the Valley than the county's just-opened $11 million regional landfill near Wittmann, in the making for nearly four years. The regional landfill was intended to serve the entire northwest Valley for the next fifty years. A competing landfill that is more convenient undermines the county's attempt to make the regional landfill an economic success.
The El Mirage deal, says county supervisor Carole Carpenter, betrays a commitment by west Valley communities--including El Mirage--to support regional landfills and to choose dump sites through consensus with citizen committees and environmental consultants. "This was a closed-door deal between lawyers that flies in the face of everything that has been going on for the past four years with the citizen siting process," Carpenter says. "It's absolutely unnecessary from the standpoint of landfill capacity and is located in an area that we looked at and rejected for environmental reasons very early on in our own process. The clear sentiment of the citizens in the area is that it is foolish to put a landfill anywhere near an existing river."
Even more galling, says deputy county engineer Wayne Collins, is that the whole effort to develop regional landfills "was triggered by El Mirage coming to us five years ago and asking for help in finding a new site so they could shut down Boyce and move forward with redevelopment plans for the area."
"Excuse my French," says Dick McComb, El Mirage city manager from 1986 until last March, "but that's total bullshit. We went to the county and the state and begged for help in shutting down [the Boyce] landfill. They left the city sitting out there by ourselves trying to close a landfill where there appeared to be clear violations of state and county health codes and they simply refused to take action."
Boyce's landfill has been accused by state and county officials of operating in flagrant violation of solid-waste and flood-control laws and is the target of a 1987 state lawsuit seeking its closure. That suit is expected to go to trial this summer, says assistant attorney general Jay Skardon.
The suit capped years of cat-and-mouse between Boyce and officials of the state, city and county over concern that the landfill poses an environmental threat because much of it lies in the channel of the Agua Fria. Boyce sued El Mirage in 1986 after the city enacted ordinances restricting the landfill's operation. He also claimed the city breached an agreement to relocate his business.
Scott Lind, the current city manager of El Mirage, says the city saw Boyce's most recent proposal as a way out of the lawsuit, which was becoming increasingly expensive and for which the city is not insured. "The downside of losing the suit is that Boyce has a lease on 120 acres around his current site," Lind explains. "Considering the problems with the existing landfill and knowing his method of operating, we didn't want that forced on us. BFI is proposing to build a state- of-the-art facility, even better than the regional site."
Lind acknowledges that surrounding cities and landowners, large and small, are opposed to the BFI proposal, but he maintains El Mirage does not owe anybody anything. Far from receiving help from their neighbors on past issues, he says, "we're on our own. We always were."
BFI is not so bellicose. In fact, the company has hired powerful local lobbyists to try to drum up grassroots support. The lobbyists, including Alfredo Gutierrez and Rick DeGraw, have hired a handful of local people, at $12 an hour, to gather signatures on a petition calling for the closure of the Boyce landfill and, in an indirect way, endorsing the BFI proposal.
Carpenter says she hopes El Mirage can be persuaded to veto zoning for the BFI landfill, or that the state Department of Environmental Quality will deny an operating permit. She also says she's looking into legislation that would prevent cities from undermining regional solid-waste planning. "It's very difficult to make the citizen-based process work if, in the end, any town that wants to can flout that process," Carpenter says.