LA vs. Kern: Sludge fight still slogging through courts

LA vs. Kern: Sludge fight still slogging through courts »Play Video
This sign is posted on Kern County land that Los Angeles uses to dispose of biosolid waste, also known as sludge.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — Sludge from Southern California is still being trucked to Kern County, and Los Angeles city officials say they plan to fight to continue spreading it here.

After years of legal battles and a voter-approved ban, local residents worry about the smelly goo that is still coming here by the ton.

Charles Blackwood drives north on Interstate 5 every morning, and he's spotted the trucks hauling biosolids up from the Los Angeles area. He followed three of the big rigs Thursday morning and was so outraged that he took video.

Blackwood said the trucks were smelly, and brown material was flying out the top.

"I'm worried about ground water," Blackwood told Eyewitness News. "And (Lake) Buena Vista is over here, kids play there."

Sludge is the biosolids left when sewage is treated. Cities need some place to dispose of this waste.

The sludge ends up trucked west on Highway 119 just west of I-5 to a large property called Green Acres owned by the city of Los Angeles, where the sludge is spread on the soil.

Blackwood can't understand why it still happens. Kern County voters passed Measure E by 83 percent, which bans application of treated human and industrial waste on any land in the unincorporated areas of Kern County. That vote was back in 2006, and LA and some others immediately sued to stop it from being implemented.

"We feel we're on the side of the angels, so to speak in this dispute," Kern's chief deputy county counsel Mark Nations told Eyewitness News. "This is what the people in Kern County want."

LA and Orange County took the suit to federal court, and it was recently dismissed.

In January, Kern County Supervisors gave the operations until June to end their sludge application. But, in February the groups went back to court.

"It's the same group of plaintiffs who sued us in federal court," Nations said. "And that lawsuit is currently pending here (in Kern County)."

LA spreads the sludge on the soil, and then grows crops used for livestock feed. Nations said the EPA says that's OK, but Kern County does not agree.

"The EPA requirements don't measure everything that's in that stuff," Nations said. Local farmers and opponents of sludge spreading worry about things like pathogens, heavy metals and nitrogen.

Nations said the operators have put a lot of money and equipment into the sludge-spreading facilities, and that's why the county gave them six months to wind down their operations.

Eyewitness News asked city of LA officials if they will stop by the deadline.

"The city of Los Angeles and the other governments, farmers and contractors that will be damaged by the implementation of the Kern biosolids ban intend to seek relief from a court in advance of the July 2011 effective date for the ban," spokeswoman Cora Jackson-Fossett responded by e-mail.

The spokeswoman also defended the practice of spreading the sludge.

"Biosolids recycling has benefited the environment in Kern County, provided jobs, and proved highly efficient," Jackson-Fossett added.

Asked if LA has alternative methods to dispose of the waste, the spokeswoman said, "No."

"The city does not have contingency plans of a scale to fully mitigate the irreparable harm that would result, to both the environment and the city of Los Angeles, from a shut down of Green Acres Farm," Jackson-Fossett responded. The farm is over 4,000 acres.

The LA spokeswoman said the city now puts 15,450 tons a month on the property on average. However, the Kern County Environmental Health Department told Eyewitness News reports show about 200,000 wet tons a month are applied.

Kern County's attorney said he expected LA and the others would continue fighting the voter-approved ban on sludge. Blackwood said he hopes it stops soon. He thinks Kern County should have more control over what happens, and what goes into the soil in our own backyard.