Smoke on the Water

Peter Brierty likens the “natural phenomenon” unfolding near Devore to a trash can filled with grass clippings. Hours after the grass has been mowed and piled up, it begins to decompose and, so, generate heat. Now imagine the heat generated by 60,000 cubic yards of the stuff, and you've pretty much got the Cajon Wash dumpsite, an 80-foot-by-400-foot pile of tires, construction debris and green waste–all of it there illegally. Things got so hot that the dumpsite near the rural San Bernardino County town actually began burning on Dec. 31. It continued burning for about a month–like a mini-Apocalypse–before recent rains doused the fire. But the heap still smolders and could spark up again as rainwater speeds the breakdown of flammable contaminants buried deep inside the mound, says Brierty, an “incident commander” with San Bernardino County Fire Department's Hazardous Materials Division. And why should we care? you ask. Because it turns out the dump is perilously close to Cajon Creek, an important source of Orange County's water. So why doesn't someone just douse it again and haul all the crap away? Therein lies our story. The estimated cost to snuff the fire and clean up the site is $2 million. San Bernardino County, which has no money set aside for disaster mitigation caused by outlaw landfills, wants to tap into a $5 million illegal-dump-cleanup fund administered by the state's Integrated Waste Management Board, Brierty said. The state board says, forget it; its fund can only be used for cleaning up illegal dumps, not putting out fires. To prevent burning embers from being blown into nearby homes and natural resources, county fire officials wanted to throw dirt over the dump. But state environmental regulators shot down that plan because that would mean the county was, in essence, maintaining an illegal dumpsite. Someone suggested the dump be leveled and spread out to prevent contaminants from combining and spurring dangerous chemical chain reactions. Forget that, too, said alarmed state water-quality and Fish and Game officials, who feared that plan would enlarge the area of devastation. (The Environment News Service notes that the dump is surrounded by habitat for the Santa Ana speckled dace, San Bernardino and Merriam's kangaroo rats, the least bells vireo and southwestern willow flycatcher.) Part of the problem is that few officials have ever dealt with what is, in fact, a giant compost heap. If the county had discovered rusty steel drums brimming with industrial toxic waste, the matter would have been handled–and funded–immediately, according to Brierty.”This is a career issue,” he said. “I've told people from the state, 'You've got to see this.' They say, 'Yeah, yeah, I've seen an illegal dump before.' But there has not been one person from the state, federal government or natural-resources consulting firms I've taken to the site who hasn't said: 'Oh my God, this is amazing. This is the largest I've ever seen.' I've been with the county for 20 years, and I've never seen anything like it.” While bureaucrats seek a final solution, workers have dug trenches between the waste and the creek. But officials fear a big storm could overrun the trenches and flush toxic material into the creek–killing the fish and polluting the Santa Ana River, which replensishes Orange County's groundwater. Authorities believe the illegal dumping went on for three or four years undetected behind a wall of compost. And the sight of 18-wheelers coming in and out of the area would not have raised eyebrows because it's just off Cajon Road, which is frequented by truckers seeking a break from the treacherous Cajon Pass. Only the New Year's Eve fire suggested something was wrong. The San Bernardino County counsel's office is coming down on property owner Lee Shreves, whose heavy-equipment repair business borders the Cajon Wash. They're also going after dumpers who allegedly paid up to $400 per truckload to illegally discard material there (as opposed to $700 per load at a legal landfill). To this day, bureaucrats in Sacramento play a back-and-forth game in which funds and strategies to deal with the mess are proposed and rejected. Meanwhile, the dome burns.

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