For the final public hearing on whether to reopen Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills, the dump’s owner assembled the predictable array of experts, color maps and graphs.

But then Browning-Ferris Industries went one step further: It hired private detectives to dig up information on its opponents – a neighborhood group called the North Valley Coalition.

BFI wanted to know how the Coalition, a collection of workaday citizen activists could afford to produce a sophisticated engineering report, one that questioned the dump’s safety in an earthquake.

What the detectives found was that the coalition had been quietly financed by a corporate giant in the garbage industry and BFI’s competitor, WMX Technologies Inc.

Serious money was in the balance, all sides agree.

If Sunshine Canyon failed to open, WMX stood to gain substantial profits at its Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley and its proposed dump in San Bernardino County.

The Bradley facility alone could earn WMX as much as $33,000 a day with just the trash that otherwise would go to Sunshine Canyon, officials said.

“There is a tremendous amount of windfall profits that can come to landfill operators if there are no competitors around,” said Barclay Hudson, a waste-management teacher at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

Just days before the hearing, BFI leaked its newfound information to the Wall Street Journal.

Not only did the resulting flap cast doubt on the integrity of the coalition’s report, but it set off a running debate over the ethics of corporate giants and grass-roots organizations forming secret alliances.

With several Southland dumps closing their gates in the next decade, others maxing out and tough state recycling standards, landfill executives and members of neighborhood groups alike say such relationships will probably grow.

Outraged by the Sunshine Canyon incident, Los Angeles Councilwoman Laura Chick has proposed a law that would force companies and nonprofit groups to disclose their financial ties.

“As we seek to make these complex decisions, it’s important we know who is playing what role, who is influencing whom and who is paying for what,” Chick added. “If there is a reason not to openly reveal and disclose, then that’s something to take a look at.”

In the end, the state Regional Water Quality Control Board granted BFI permission to open the landfill this summer, but not before castigating the Coalition for failing to disclose its relationship with WMX earlier.

“I care who supplies the funds. Are they in opposition?” board member Larry Zarian told the Coalition. “I think it is an important question.”

WMX officials, however, say they are baffled by the controversy they contend has diverted attention from legitimate safety questions raised by the $60,000 study, prepared by the San Francisco engineering firm of Treadwell & Rollo.

And Coalition officials say they did nothing wrong.

Whatever the aftermath, the incident has illustrated how intense competition in the state’s $1.2 billion-a-year trash industry has blurred the lines that once clearly divided the ecology movement and the trash business.

Throughout California, waste companies, homeowner groups and others are forming unorthodox alliances to back certain projects – and derail others.

In Alameda County, BFI financed a study that Sierra Club members used to assail WMX’s environmental impact report for the proposed expansion of its Altamont Landfill. BFI runs a dump five miles away.

WMX has appeared at public hearings to fight plans for the expansion of the publicly run Toland landfill in Ventura County. How well the project could withstand a major temblor is one of its central questions.

Last year, BKK Corp. bused some three dozen placard-carrying supporters to Santa Clarita for the first public hearing on its proposed Elsemere Canyon Landfill. Besides the transportation, the company also provided them with signs, buttons and a burrito lunch.

In the San Gabriel Valley, BKK ended a bitter fight with the city of West Covina and several homeowners groups by agreeing to seal its dump this September. While its dump was operational, though, the company ponied up tens of thousands of dollars annually to church and school groups, hometown political organizations and other civic outfits near their West Covina dump.

BKK Vice President Ken Kazarian said such donations are routine in an industry that he claims has been unfairly tarred as greedy and reckless by the media and activists.

“That’s the way it is,” he said. “We’ve been in the fishbowl for years. You’re never presumed to be doing anything right.”

In the Sunshine Canyon case, the Coalition received more help from WMX than the Treadwell & Rollo report, which was completed two years ago. WMX’s Los Angeles law firm, for instance, provided the group with legal advice and lobbying assistance, acknowledged Chuck White, the company’s director of regulatory affairs.

And two public relations firms assisted the group with press releases written on Coalition letterhead as well as coordinating testimony before the regional water board.

White declined to estimate the dollar-value of the help WMX gage to the coalition. He said the assistance wasn’t aimed at quashing Sunshine Canyon’s plans, but rather to ensure it underwent the same exhaustive regulatory reviews that its own projects endured.

“We’re just trying to get a level playing field,” White said.

“The Sunshine Canyon landfill will be there for a long time,” he said, “and there’s a high probability there will be an earthquake that will be bigger than it’s designed to withstand.”

Coalition members and others say they share the same safety concerns, but they didn’t have deep enough pockets to inform the public without help from WMX.

Facing corporations that can pump out slick brochures, scientific treatises and hefty campaign contributions, citizen activists say they can no longer rely on just heartfelt testimonials to keep trash mountains from jutting up in their neighborhoods.

BFI earned more than $5 billion in revenues last year.

“We needed somebody with some serious dollars,” said coalition treasurer Nora Schumaker. “We were so outgunned and outspent by BFI we needed to get into game. There were no strings attached, and I had no ethical problems with it.”

BFI executive Phillip Angel said his company was forced to use the detective so the public would know the truth about the WMX-coalition relationship.

Angel won’t say exactly how its detectives got records from the engineering firm Treadwell & Rollo, only that “it was completely ethical and legal.”

Treadwell & Rollo declined to comment.

“What we did was an extreme measure,” said Angel. “But the future of Sunshine Canyon was at risk, and this represents tens of millions in investment for BFI.”

In opposing Sunshine Canyon, White said WMX wasn’t trying to boost profits for its Bradley landfill or other company facilities.

Government regulators, though, say the landfill industry in Los Angeles County is at a crossroads, especially with last week’s closure of Lopez Canyon Landfill.

Lopez took in roughly 80 percent of Los Angeles’ garbage, estimated at 3,300 tons daily.

Most of that now will go to Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley and the Sunshine Canyon dump, said Steve Fortune, a division manager at the Los Angeles Bureau of Sanitation. Bradley and Sunshine will receive about $19 for each ton of city trash they receive.

And sandwiched in between big business and big landfills are grass-roots groups such as the Coalition.

“It is very difficult for neighborhood groups to fund opposition to large corporate giants,” said Lynn Plambeck, chairwoman of San Fernando Valley based group that promotes landfill closures.

The Coalition should not have to make any apologies, she said: “Walk with the devil when he is walking your way.”

Copyright Los Angeles Daily News