Landfill & Sewage Plant Tour

This past Saturday morning until noon, my friend Michael and I, along with about 100 others of all walks, participated in a public tour led by the Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts at Puente Hills Landfill and San José Creek Water Reclamation Plant.

People in a long line getting ready for tour.

I was very excited to attend this tour because, five years ago, I worked with Los Angeles County Department of Public Works (LADPW) on a publication called the Countywide Siting Element, an integrated waste management plan for the County’s 10.16 million residents. The document made it clear that the County was running out of local landfill space. That time has now arrived. It had all been in the abstract until now.

The Landfill Tour

Puente Hills Landfill, the largest in the USA at 600 acres across and up to 500 feet deep, is now closed and no longer receiving dumps. The trash items are encased in a concrete-lined basin and buried at least five feet deep in soil. No water penetrates it. You can see a tree-studded mountain off of the 60-freeway.

It looks very natural but as you get closer, you see that the trees are all non-native: figs, eucalyptus, and myrtles, with pipes, full of liquid leakage or methane emissions from the trash, weaving among the tree trunks. You can also see croppings of mysterious tanks and pumps throughout the mountainside. Nonetheless, there are plans to transform it into a public park.

Row of heavy duty tanks surrounded by trees and foliage.

The methane leads to a furnace where it is burned and the heat is used to create electricity. Water is used to cool down the air from the energy conversion and the vapor is released through these stacks.

Large industrial towers releasing vapor into the air.

At the foot of the mountain is a giant warehouse, the size of which I’ve never seen so large in my life. The big trash trucks departing from them, after unloading, look like tiny dots.

Nearly aerial view of a humongous boxy warehouse-like plant at the foot of Puente Hills.

Inside, each truck must pay depending on what it is dropping off and how much. The types of trash are sorted into much more specific categories than just “recycling.” For example: wood, concrete, produce, paper, glass, etc.

Sorted trash in giant piles and bins inside the building.

After sorting and breaking down the categories of trash, they are either sold or transported by truck or train to distant processing sites.

The Sewage Tour

San José Creek water reclamation services existed before Puente Hills Landfill became a thing. It is the oldest sewage processing plant in LA County and a large one too. Check out these buttons. They don’t make them like this anymore!

“Dozens

Today, the largest one is right next to the coast, in Carson, the Joint Water Pollution Control Plant.

San José Creek Plant alone process some 100 million gallons per day. Sometimes, more sewage arrives than can be processed, particularly during storms. In such cases, the raw sewage goes straight into the ocean. A new plan, the Clearwater Project, will have large pipes built and installed into the Pacific, sending sewage a few miles out before it is released into the ocean, so it is away from the coast.

While this preserves the quality of water along the beaches and coastal properties, it does also send a bit of the wrong message: Out of sight, out of mind.

Not today — raw sewage is gross!

“Dozens

Our guide and Sanitation employee told us about the three stages of sewage processing. He said this is basically nature’s own process — accelerated.

Illustrated graphic of sewage processing.
  1. Primary – Raw sewage in tanks, settling beneath closed metal doors. Our guide opened some for us to see. It was too dark to see and the smell was too strong to approach.
  2. Secondary- The debris in the water is digested by the same kinds of microbes in your intestines. The liquid is exposed to the air to enable further breakdown through natural processes. The odor is strong but less so.
  3. Tertiary – The water goes through intense sediment filtration and becomes clear.
“Dozens
“Dozens
“Dozens

Our guide let us know that this water was clean enough for gardening and for washing our hands. He passed around a flask of this water and poured it over open palms of the audience. He also told us that about 1 billion of the world population is drinking water less clean than the tertiary grade.

The residual solids separated from the water are hauled to distant sites to be transformed into fertilizer. In fact, you may know the brand Kellogg from Home Depot’s nursery section (not the cereal brand). H. Clay Kellogg took the solids from sanitation filtration and transformed it into agricultural and residential garden fertilizer in the 1920s, launching his successful business.

Adjacent to the plant, concrete-lined San Jose Creek finds new life through the reclaimed water.

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Over 50% of LA’s water is from Sacramento and from the Colorado River. With those sources reducing their exports to LA, we need to curb water waste and, when it does rain, let rainfall recharge our groundwater sources. This means letting it drain into the soil rather than let it run off into the sea.

As we face a city and world that are stretched thin for resources and changing as a result human impacts, what struck me the most during the tours was how much fuel and energy we are expending to manage waste. A toilet flushed in Pasadena must travel through a network of pipes to reach Whittier to be processed. Trash collected from a residential bin from Monrovia travels 30 miles in a heavy diesel truck to be sorted and then put on a diesel train to be hauled to Mesquite Canyon Landfill in the Mojave Desert. We are compounding our waste.

Some ways to conserve resources would be:
1. Worm-composting kitchen scraps. You can use the resulting fertilizer for your vegetable garden too.
2. Installing rain catchment bins and cisterns around buildings.
3. Building bioswales into garden landscapes. Grow native plants.
4. Recycling clean recyclable materials.
5. Buy only what you need and making it last.
6. Avoid single-use items.
7. Know what are poisonous chemicals and toxic materials and dispose of them responsibly.

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