No Sweat

County officials say no to swimming, but yes to recycling at Irvine Lake


Some people might find licking sweat from an athlete's body really sexy, but, we were surprised to learn, not Serrano Water District officials.

Last month, triathlon organizers asked the district to let jocks kick off a June event with a swim through Irvine Lake. District officials shuddered and said no. While the lake is a popular fishing spot, it's also a source of drinking water for thousands of residents in Villa Park and Orange.

So: no sweat in the drinking water.

TVI's Irvine facility: coming to a lake near you. Photo by Amy Ferguson
TVI's Irvine facility: coming to a lake near you. Photo by Amy Ferguson

While the triathlon has been downsized to a duathlon—running and biking, but no swimming—water officials are ready to okay a 30-acre dumpsite just a few feet from the shore of beautiful Irvine Lake.

"If this stupid dump goes there, that's going over the line," said Ed Amador, president of the Canyonlands Conservation Fund in Silverado, a member of the Orange Hills Task Force.

Two agencies—the Serrano and Irvine Ranch water districts—manage the lake, and officials in both are eager to point out that the dump isn't a dump. It's a composting facility that will handle 12,500 tons per year of so-called "clean green waste"—that's composting talk for trees and shrubs. With "proper mitigation measures," they say, the project won't pose any "significant" danger to drinking water.

It's hard to imagine a less obvious choice for a dumpsite than the eastern shore of Irvine Lake. It's not Yosemite, but in an increasingly urban county, the 750-acre lake on the fringe of the Cleveland National Forest can make you forget you're just 15 minutes from downtown Irvine. There's not a house in sight. Surrounded by overhanging trees, steep cliffs, deep creek channels and some picnic tables, the lake does double duty—fishing hole and reservoir for residents of a rapidly expanding urban population.

The dumpsite will be operated by Irvine-based Tierra Verde Industries (TVI). On April 18, the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) filed paperwork saying a full environmental study of the project is unnecessary.

"TVI proposes to receive, transport and compost clean green waste material from residential and commercial sources," the filing states.

"Clean" is the key word. As the document itself makes clear, however, TVI would be permitted to store waste not just from tree trimmings but notoriously unclean material from curbside recycling programs as well.

"I have a problem with putting a curbside, source separation facility on the shore of a drinking water reservoir," said Mark Ferguson, who operates Baker Canyon Green Recycling in Silverado. He says residential green waste typically includes stuff from your lawn—not just grass, which is often contaminated with herbicides and motor oil from lawn mowers, but whatever else ends up in the wrong recycling bin.

Composting requires constant watering of massive piles of possibly contaminated waste, Ferguson said. "All that water helps the composting process but also allows seepage into the soil. If you locate your dump on the shore of the lake, where the groundwater is only a few feet below the surface, it's impossible to prevent contamination."

"The obvious concern is putting a composting facility near a lake," said Rich Gomez, co-founder of the Saddleback Canyons Conservancy. "That's a little suspect to begin with. We're in the process of gathering information, but haven't come to any conclusions yet. It's a big mystery."

District officials say there won't be any grass at the site, even though their own documents acknowledge that TVI will haul in "source separated" material—the grass you dump into your green-waste bin. And they say the lake is a perfect place for composting.

"The composting facility is sited in such a way that it will have no impact on Irvine Lake. . . . The heavy clay soil in the area prevents soil seepage," said Beth Beeman, an IRWD spokesperson.

But IRWD's environmental checklist for the project site suggests otherwise: "The proposed project site . . . consists primarily of gravel and sandy soils."

The story of a "stupid dump" that is proposed, approved and defended by otherwise intelligent people leads, as these things often do in Orange County, to the powerful Irvine Co. TVI has for years operated a similar dumpsite on Irvine Co. land just outside the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Now the Irvine Co. needs that land for new houses—and needs TVI to move out of its way.

Art Kazarian, TVI's president, declined an interview request. He referred questions about the project to Mike Stockstill, a partner of the Irvine-based lobbying and public relations firm California Strategies. Stockstill previously worked for the Irvine Co. for 13 years; his partner, Gary Hunt, spent 25 years with the developer. In an interview, Stockstill confirmed that the Irvine Co. was behind the plan to put the dumpsite next to Irvine Lake. "The land that TVI currently uses in Irvine is not going to be available to them in the coming months because it is going to be developed by the Irvine Co.," Stockstill said. "They need to relocate."

Stockstill denied that the dumpsite will contain curbside, or "source separated," waste material, despite the fact that IRWD's filing specifically mentions it will be included in the dumpsite. "Nothing that is going to be composted at Irvine Lake comes from curbside," he said. "That has been the case for Tierra Verde's work at their facility up to this time."

But photographs recently taken at TVI's Irvine facility by Ferguson's wife, Amy, clearly show trash-strewn piles of curbside waste. "TVI claims it's just going to do clean green waste," Ferguson said. "But everything they're doing shows it will not be a clean green facility. As a member of the U.S. Composting Council, I know a large percentage of composters, and they wouldn't even think of siting a facility like this next to a reservoir . . . The level of contamination is too high."

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