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Par For The Landfill

Golf and other recreational uses are being developed for dumps after they reach their capacity.

June 20, 2000

By CHIP JACOBS
Special to the Times

Just another hard-hat Monday on Strathern Street.

Scrap-yard machines moan into the dreary haze. A big rig jettisons debris into a giant pit filled with concrete skeletons of old buildings. Across the way, close to a methane plant, a young man in Bermuda shorts whacks golf balls onto a driving range built directly over a closed dump.

Golf? In Sun Valley? A place known for its teeming array of landfills, sand-and-gravel excavators, recycling shops and auto junkyards?

Swing away. As area landfills near capacity over the next decade or so, those golf balls rolling around the artificial turf at the old Penrose Landfill may herald the start of something novel in Sun Valley: a recreation industry where there used to be heavy industry.

New attitudes about maximizing scarce open space, combined with the faith that technology and vigilance can all but eliminate public health threats, have made that possibility more than a tease. In California over the last few years, golf courses, soccer fields– even commercial buildings–have sprouted on trash hillocks compressed with coffee grounds, diapers, orange peels, torn socks and other household castoffs.

Los Angeles City Councilman Alex Padilla, who represents Sun Valley, supports the conversion and said he’d consider public subsidies for developers. But a sales job may be required first.

“I’d understand the concern about taking your kids to a day at the course on a man-made mountain of trash,” Padilla said. “But experienced golfers know this isn’t uncommon. The safeguards are in place.”

While it didn’t originate the idea, Los Angeles By-Products Co. in January quietly opened its crescent-shaped driving range on 15 acres of land near Strathern and Tujunga Avenue. Next to it is a bicycle motocross (BMX) track that debuted in April 1999. Both sit atop the dormant Penrose Landfill, which stopped accepting household trash in 1985.

For company President Michael McAllister, the twin projects cap seven years of planning and permit chasing. He said there are 600,000 people living within a five-mile radius of the range, and some are bound to want to work on that handicap.

“We’re just glad it’s complete,” McAllister said. “Through great effort by our engineers, we were able to achieve something people didn’t think we could do.”

The 300-yard-long range, which is operated by a separate company, and the BMX track cost about $2 million, McAllister said. Depending on their success, a kiddie train, go-cart track, laser-tag arena, bumper cars or a miniature golf course could be added. There’s also talk of batting cages or a skateboard park.

The 72-acre site, just southwest of San Fernando Road, is zoned for outdoor recreation.

Someday it may not be the only ex-garbage graveyard open for leisure here.

At Sun Valley’s Bradley Landfill, one of the largest private landfills in California, officials are mulling over different scenarios for their 100 acres of land. Bradley will reach capacity in three to four years. The company, which is owned by mammoth Waste Management Inc., is considering a small golf course, soccer fields, baseball diamonds, a vehicle-storage yard and other ideas, according to Scott Tignac, the landfill’s division manager.

“We’re looking at which options are even realistic,” he said. “Economics will drive it.”

At Vulcan Materials Co., a sand, gravel and rock producer with three facilities around the industrial Tuxford Street/San Fernando Road area in Sun Valley, reuse plans are in the preliminary stage as well. While it’s unlikely Vulcan would seed a golf course over its excavation pits, the company may convert some into catch basins to recharge the local ground water basin, said Jim Dean, Vulcan’s area market manager.

Civic leaders are somewhat split on the issue of reusing landfills.

Bill Slater, government affairs chairman for the Sun Valley Area Chamber of Commerce, opposes the landfill-to-golf concept, saying the potential for contaminated runoff is too great. He’d rather focus on a city redevelopment proposal that could boost the area’s anemic retail base.

“We need to do something to make this a better place–not a vacation site for tourists,” Slater said.

But state Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who fought to close the Lopez Canyon Landfill when he was on the Los Angeles City Council, said it’s an idea worth testing. Alarcon, who grew up in the area, said: “I could ride my bike in any direction and find a landfill. My dad lives a five-iron away” from one today.

According to the city’s Environmental Affairs Department, there are 17 closed or inactive landfills and three active landfills in Sun Valley. Some of them date to the early 1900s. Others were dug when companies mined for construction aggregate–the sand and rock mixed with cement to make concrete.

“On one hand, Sun Valley is an example of the over-concentration of landfills and . . . how poor, working-class people don’t engage in fights against these things,” said Alarcon, who chairs the state select committee on environmental justice. “On the other hand, there is a possibility we can do something positive” with a driving range or future parks.

Plenty of existing Sun Valley businesses were built over old dumps, including several auto parts yards, a kennel and a discount clothing store. That golf could now emerge in a dust-caked community where pickup trucks dominate the road isn’t lost on some.

“There’s no Starbucks in town,” kidded chamber member Ron Hall. “And they wouldn’t sell anything if they were here.”

A CLOSED LANDFILL IS A ‘USED-UP ASSET’

In many cases, money-making ventures built over landfills give owners a way to offset some of the environmental monitoring and maintenance costs.

A closed landfill “is already a used-up asset,” said Jim Aardema, vice president of development of En CAP Golf, a Tampa, Fla.-based company that specializes in developing golf courses over landfills.

“What’s happening is that cities see they can encourage economic development, and waste companies see they can cut some of their expenses while generating political and community goodwill,” said Aardema, whose company is consulting with Waste Management about the future of the Bradley dump.

Another emerging factor, he said, is insurance companies. Because of proven mitigation techniques, they are much more willing to underwrite landfill-conversions than they were in the 1980s.

McAllister, the Los Angeles By-Products Co. president, said he believes his driving range is the only one in Southern California built with a geo-synthetic cover over the refuse. Made from two thick plastic sheets with a special clay sandwiched in between, the cover is designed to keep water out and fumes from escaping into the air.

His company still runs a 75-acre landfill across from the driving range. The Strathern Inert Landfill accepts only nondegradable waste, such as old building materials. McAllister said it could very well have recreational facilities atop it when capacity is reached in about 2013.

A major component to any landfill closure is how potential health threats are minimized. Monitoring goes on for 30 years, and any landfill owner eager to tap into the outdoor sports market better be prepared for expensive studies and scrutiny by multiple government agencies, experts say.

Besides the clay blanket over the landfill’s outer layer, recently built municipal dumps must be lined with a nonpermeable membrane to prevent potentially hazardous runoff from leaching into ground water and soil. Using detection wells, regulators keep on the lookout for vinyl chloride, the carcinogen benzene and various heavy metals.

But gas is the biggest worry. In the late 1980s, for example, Glendale was forced to close a golf course built atop the Scholl Canyon Landfill because of leaking methane gas generated by degrading household waste. The course was reopened after the city corrected the problem.

At Penrose, enough methane is suctioned to power 10,000 homes, company officials said. The gas is essentially vacuumed out using a latticework of pipes and manifolds running through the trash.

It’s “the most critical part of the system to preserve public safety,” said Wayne Tsuda, division director for the city’s Environmental Department.

“Penrose was the first landfill we were involved with that was turned into a golf course. It required a lot of technical review.”

McAllister said the driving range makes the most money, but that the BMX track hosted more than 200 racers and 200 spectators in early June, when a state qualifier was held by the National Bicycle League. The driving range gets about 200 golfers daily.

Originally, the company wanted to build an 18-hole championship course covering both Penrose and the nearby Strathern Inert Landfill. The company hired a lobbyist and spent nearly $210,000 to amass the necessary permits and door-to-door support from neighbors.

After the plans were completed, however, McAllister said state regulators shocked him by saying the company needed to add another clay barrier. The company had already put down the geo-synthetic covering, and the new requirement would have cost several million dollars more.

Ultimately, Los Angeles By-Products opted for a low-tech solution. The driving range, for example, is carpeted with lustrous artificial turf, including beige colored material inside the “sand traps.”

Full-blown courses built over landfills, while potential cash cows, require sophisticated and expensive drainage systems to staunch underground runoff created by sprinkler water. A plastic- grass driving range, by contrast, gets sunbaked, but never thirsty.

STATE LEARNING TO HANDLE FORMER DUMPS

Linda Moulton-Patterson, chairwoman of the California Integrated Waste Management Board, said the state is still learning how to handle former dump sites.

Back when Los Angeles By-Products applied to build the golf course, she said there were too many unknowns, especially about the gases.

“From my perspective, there are some creative, great uses for this closed land. With what we’ve learned in the last 10 years, we are on a solid ground,” Moulton-Patterson said. “And for a community [today], it’s the end of the rainbow.”

The ground beneath landfills regularly subsides–a fact that generally makes building traditional structures over them off limits.

At Penrose, checking for signs of cracking on the concrete pad where the golfers are and in the clubhouse is a constant chore. The city even refused to allow the steel clubhouse behind the range until Los Angeles By-Products found a modular-unit builder able to allay the city’s concerns.

“We did this for the community, but we do hope to make a little money,” said McAllister, who doesn’t golf. “After awhile, we’ll see if we can do other things on the landfill.”

copyright Los Angeles Times