By Elizabeth Fitzsimons
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER
September 28, 2004
PALA – People have been fighting against a landfill in Gregory Canyon since the county first proposed putting one there 15 years ago.
Opponents, now led by the Pala Band of Mission Indians, have raised one argument after another for why the canyon was ill-suited for a dump.
There were the garbage trucks on a two-lane highway; an invasion of birds and rodents; the damage to sacred Indian land; and the habitat for a wide range of animals.
Now, the landfill's potential to pollute North County water supplies has become the rallying cry for Proposition B. If approved by voters countywide next month, it could be the death knell for the landfill, proposed for a canyon about three miles east of where Interstate 15 and state Route 76 intersect.
The campaign by San Diegans for Clean Drinking Water can be summarized in a few words: Gregory Canyon is a bad place for a dump. Supporters say the canyon's proximity to the San Luis Rey River and a major aquifer underneath it would endanger drinking water used by the tribe and several North County cities.
"The moment you say it sits on top of an aquifer right near a river, they say, 'Get out of here,' " said Jack Orr, Pala's political consultant.
Describing Proposition B as the Pala tribe's way of protecting its lucrative casino is a major focus of the campaign against it. A television ad that began airing last week has images of gambling chips being moved across a green, felt-covered table.
"Nobody wants a landfill in their back yard. I don't want a landfill in my back yard," said Richard Chase, project manager for Gregory Canyon Ltd., the investment partnership that has spent $20 million over a decade on the landfill's development.
Chase said the Pala band knew that distaste for having a landfill nearby would not go far with voters. So it turned to water, he said.
"It's a direct lie that this landfill is on top of an aquifer," Chase said. "The edge of the aquifer is at least a quarter of a mile away."
If approved, Proposition B would overturn Proposition C, a successful 1994 initiative funded by Gregory Canyon Ltd., that amended the county's General Plan to allow a landfill in Gregory Canyon. In other words, a vote for Proposition B is a vote against the proposed landfill.
If built, Gregory Canyon would accept a million tons of trash a year for 30 years. North County, which now has no operating landfill, currently produces about 800,000 tons of garbage a year, Chase said – an amount that is expected to increase.
The environmental protections required of modern landfills, and the county's growing population and shrinking dump space, are the other major elements of Gregory Canyon Ltd.'s effort to defeat Proposition B.
They were among the factors considered by the board of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, which opposes the measure.
"The board felt satisfied with the safeguards for any leaks," said Mitch Mitchell, the chamber's vice president of public policy and communications. Board members "felt they should continue in their support of their original position in supporting the landfill," he said.
The San Diego County Taxpayers Association, county Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Michael Shames, executive director of the Utility Consumers' Action Network, are among 10 organizations or individuals who have lent their names to the campaign against Proposition B.
Last week, Chase toured the partnership's 1,770-acre property, 320 acres of which would be landfill. The rest would be a wildlife preserve.
From Route 76, Chase pointed out two nearby sand and gravel operations, and the Pala casino on the other side of Gregory Mountain.
"Without the landfill, it's hardly a pristine site," he said.
On the partnership's land, Chase stopped his sport utility vehicle on a small bridge and pointed through his window at dried brush in a shallow gulch.
"This is the river, in case you were wondering. It's a little hard to see the water," he said.
It was the dry season, he added, and at times water would be flowing over the river bed.
Appliances and pieces of garbage were scattered on the landfill site. A bobcat loped on the dirt road leading to the site and coyote scat was evident, signs of the wildlife in the canyon.
Gregory Canyon Ltd. contends that a state-of-the-art liner and an elaborate leachate collection system would make the landfill among the safest in the state. They also tout the $100 million insurance policy, with a premium of $100,000 a year, against any environmental damage.
"Obviously, there's no such thing as absolute perfection," Chase said. "But if you look at the Gregory Canyon system, it's 2½ times more protective than (the) Sycamore and Otay" landfills.
Both of those landfills, Chase added, are near rivers.
Those arguments have not convinced several North County cities and water districts. Oceanside, Encinitas, Del Mar, the Fallbrook Public Utility District and the Yuima Municipal Water District, as well as environmental groups including the San Diego chapter of the Sierra Club, are among the 252 organizations and individuals listed as opposing the landfill and supporting Proposition B.
Pala officials dismiss the notion that the landfill would adversely affect the tribe's casino. Howard Kaloogian, a former Republican assemblyman who is speaking on behalf of the campaign, said many patrons already travel great distances to visit the casino, and would not be dissuaded by a landfill.
"The people who are going to go are going to go," Kaloogian said.
Landfill opponents contend that the 1994 measure succeeded because Gregory Canyon Ltd. spent more than $500,000 on a misleading campaign. They say voters who were in favor of the landfill will vote differently once they learn the full story.
"Nobody told the voters it was above an aquifer," Kaloogian said. "I was shocked to hear Richard Chase say there is no aquifer. I'm flabbergasted at that.
"Look at a map . . . . The water is there. Where do you think these people are getting the water to drink from? That's why he's spending so much money to tout the state-of-the-art liner, because he's trying to protect the water."
In the spring, the Pala band launched its mission against the landfill. Using primarily paid signature gatherers, it circulated petitions and qualified the measure for the ballot.
The remaining weeks before the Nov. 2 vote promise to be an expensive battle. Chase said Gregory Canyon Ltd. was prepared to match the $2 million to $3 million the Pala tribe said it would spend.