Grand Jury Warns Against Closing Any OC Landfills

County of Orange

The county's Olinda Alpa Landfill, which is on unincorporated land bordering the city of Brea.

Orange County grand jurors are calling on local officials to ensure all three county landfills stay open, to prevent costs from increasing and additional traffic congestion in communities near still-operating garbage dumps.

In a news release Tuesday accompanying their new report, the panel said the operating agreements for the Olinda Alpha Landfill next to Brea “will expire in less than three years.”

“If they are not renewed, trash currently sent to Brea will be redirected to Irvine and San Juan Capistrano: an increase of over 250,000 truck trips a year to those areas. This will affect traffic on freeways and local streets, and it will increase the cost of waste disposal to Orange County residents and businesses,” the grand jury wrote.

“To address these issues, the Grand Jury report recommends that the County initiate negotiations regarding the future of the landfill in Brea, and that it perform a cost/benefit analysis of the practice of importing trash from outside Orange County.”

The grand jury wrote in its report, “Adding travel distance and time would increase operating costs, resulting in higher trash bills to Orange County residents and businesses.

“The Orange County landfill system would be disrupted by the closure of any one of the landfills,” according to the report.

[Click here to read the full grand jury report about landfills.]

The county operates three landfills: Olinda Alpha in unincorporated county land bordering Brea, Frank R. Bowerman Landfill next to Irvine, and Prima Deshecha Landfill in San Juan Capistrano.

The county’s chief spokesperson, Molly Nichelson, said county officials received the report and did not have a comment Tuesday. A formal response to the report will be issued within the 90-day timeframe required by law, she said.

State law requires the Orange County Board of Supervisors and Brea City Council to respond in writing to the report within 90 days, or by Sept. 17.

“We understand the need to maximize the useful life of the Olinda Alpha Landfill,” Brea City Manager Bill Gallardo said in an emailed statement to Voice of OC.

“As a host city, we have partnered with the County of Orange for many years and we are definitely open to discussions regarding the findings of the Grand Jury. It is our responsibility to represent the interests of Brea, as our residents, city streets and traffic continue to be impacted by nearly daily truck trips to the landfill.”

In addition to warning about the closure of the landfill near Brea, grand jurors called on county supervisors to re-assess their policy of importing trash from other counties to OC landfills, saying it will shorten the lifespan of OC’s landfills.

“Importing trash from outside of the County, initiated to help the County survive the 1994 bankruptcy, continues even though the bankruptcy bonds were retired as of July 2017,” the grand jury wrote.

“Continued importation of trash tends to decrease Orange County landfill life.”

The county began importing trash in 1995 from the counties of Riverside, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino, each of which pay Orange County for the service.

Currently, imported trash accounts for 37 percent of the waste added to Orange County’s landfills each year, and provides 30 percent of the county’s total annual waste revenue, according to the report.

In the 2017 fiscal year, the county received $45.5 million from imported trash, according to the grand jury report.

About a quarter of that money went to the county’s waste department, another 7 percent “was retained by the County” and 5 percent “was used to compensate the host cities.”

“The great majority, 63 [percent] or $28.7 million, was used to retire the bankruptcy bonds and to pay other bankruptcy-related expenses,” the grand jury wrote.

“The bankruptcy bonds were discharged by July 1, 2017, but the County continues to import trash and collect fees, with contracts running until 2025,” the grand jury continued.

“Most of these fees will be used to pay the $33.3 million owed to a handful of cities, special districts and internal county accounts that elected not to be repaid out of bond proceeds. A surplus, estimated to be between $5-8 million annually, remains beyond that.”

During federal court hearings about homelessness earlier this year, U.S. District Judge David O. Carter questioned why the county wasn’t using freed up funding streams from the now-retired bankruptcy debt – such as the trash import revenues – to help address homelessness.

Carter presided over a court case in the 1990s related to the county bankruptcy, and cited a figure of over $60 million in freed-up county money that had been paying off the bankruptcy debt.

In response to these questions, county officials said the imported trash revenue is controlled by contracts between the county and Orange County cities and is “not available for homelessness-related costs.” Their response did not say whether those agreements can be changed to allow the funds to be used to address homelessness.

Grand jurors, in their report Tuesday, issued two recommendations to the county and Brea:

  • “By December 30, 2018, the County of Orange and the City of Brea should initiate formal negotiations to ensure identification and resolution of potential issues with the Olinda Alpha Landfill Memorandum of Understanding.”
  • “By June 30, 2019, Orange County Waste and Recycling should update and publish a cost/benefit analysis on the imported trash revenue stream surplus and the future costs associated with earlier closures in the landfill system.”

As for the current landfill operations, the grand jurors credited county officials with running an efficient operation.

“Orange County Waste and Recycling is to be commended for operating an efficient and cost effective system of landfills and hazardous waste disposal centers that constitutes an important economic asset to Orange County,” the grand jury wrote.

“The Orange County waste disposal system is efficient, well balanced, geographically distributed, and works to mitigate disturbance to nearby neighborhoods.”

In its news release Tuesday, the grand jury said it “expects to release reports on other topics of interest this month,” before its term expires June 30. A new grand jury is scheduled to be empaneled on July 1 for a year-long term.

Members of the public can see the grand jury’s full reports on its website, www.ocgrandjury.org.

Nick Gerda covers county government and Santa Ana for Voice of OC. You can contact him at ngerda@voiceofoc.org.