In the coverage I saw about the Los Angeles’ new deal with BFI’s Sunshine Canyon and Councilman Greig Smith’s plan to guide the city to “zero waste,” in part through converting trash to energy, one word I missed was: LANCER. Am I the only person in LA who remembers LANCER?
When I joined Mayor Bradley’s office in 1986, the City Council was in the process of authorizing the project, a plant at 41st and Alameda that would burn trash at high temperatures and convert it into electricity. Bradley’s appointees to Public Works were championing the project, the late Councilman Gil Lindsey wanted it in his district, and it seemed as if the mayor was behind it, too. (Although, at a later point, he reminded me that he’d hadn’t taken a position on it yet. He was canny that way.)
When I got reassigned in early 1987 from his press office to the position of Senior Advisor for environmental policy, LANCER was one of the issues I had to figure out. The mayor was coming off a landslide defeat in his second try for governor, and some of George Deukmejian’s surrogates had made hay with the city’s leaky wastewater system spilling raw sewage into Santa Monica Bay. This not only hurt Bradley’s chances to rally the Democratic troops against the incumbent, but it also created an opening for Bradley to be challenged in 1989 from the left, by a candidate who would promise a more environmental administration. That candidate looked to be then-Councilman, now-Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
My new assignment led to a Charlie Brown moment. I was playing softball at Will Rogers Park with a group that included a bunch of local Democratic operatives and activists. I didn’t know all of them. When a friend introduced me as “the guy whose job is to make Tom Bradley look like a good environmentalist,” the team’s reaction was: Haaa-haaaa-haaaa-haaaa!
That can get a guy motivated. After the game, I went home and started reading EIRs. What is this environment thing? How does it work? And, I delved deeply into LANCER. The mainstream environmental groups were quiet about it. The Sierra Club, more influential locally then than now, was officially neutral. But one outlier group, Citizens for a Better Environment (now Communities for a Better Environment) and a then-new group, Concerned Citizens of South-Central Los Angeles, had gotten organized and were starting to raise the issue of how a trash-burning plant in South-Central would affect the health of nearby residents. They pointed out that no one was talking about building a plant like this in West LA or the Valley. Why should South-Central take anyone’s word that LANCER was safe if the rest of the city didn’t want it in their backyard?
The fight against LANCER was one of the first “environmental justice” campaigns. Concerned Citizens was an outstanding example of grassroots organizing. It was led by three of the most dynamic people I met during my City Hall years: Juanita Tate, and the Cannon sisters, Robin and Sheila. Juanita Tate passed away in July 2004, too young at 66, having developed Concerned Citizens into a powerful force not only for activism, but economic development. I loved meeting with Juanita. She was fierce but never angry, and she greeted everyone like a friend, even her foes. She reminded me of Tip O’Neill, except with longer fingernails.
It was so long ago, I can’t remember the precise sequence of events — the loud protests, the quiet meetings, the disasterous public hearings — but in the end, my conclusion was the Mayor should oppose LANCER and in its place call for a citywide recycling program. At that time, the only curbside recycling going on in LA was a pilot program in Pacific Palisades that seemed designed to prove only that recycling was expensive. Until Los Angeles was recycling as much as it could, I believed the public would halt every other waste disposal idea — whether it was waste-to-energy or new landfills. I also didn’t see how the city would be able to follow through on the plan of building a dozen waste-to-energy plants because of the cumulative air emissions. But building only one didn’t make sense, because its impact on trash diversion would be so minimal.
Bradley did not want to simply kill the LANCER project without announcing recycling as an alternative, so I needed to get the Bureau of Sanitation to agree that a citywide recycling program was feasible, or at least to agree not to shoot it down. At first they resisted, and tried to “educate” me out of citywide recycling. But to give credit where it’s due, after they realized recycling was their future, they embraced it, and over the next few years established the largest municipal curbside recycling program in the nation. It was Del Biagi, the bureau’s director, who said, “Why don’t we commit to recycling 50 percent of our waste?” And that became our goal. AB 939, the state law that mandated 50 percent recycling statewide, came later, its authors clearly empowered by Los Angeles’ ambitious target.
Things have moved quickly. Councilman’s Smith’s RENEW LA plan sets a goal of 100 percent recycling — zero waste. But it also talks about “harnessing the energy potential of ‘waste’ by utilizing new technology to convert the material directly into green fuel, gas and/or electricity.” Of course, that was the fine idea behind LANCER.
Don’t get me wrong. That was then, and this is now. I’ve read over some of Councilman Smith’s plan and it is clearly about as comprehensive as one could hope for. Greig Smith got elected knowing the Sunshine Canyon landfill was his albatross, so he made himself an expert on all the recycling and reuse options out there. And he’s right on the money when he compares the costs of recycling and reuse with the anticipated future cost of the only other option — hauling the trash hundreds of miles away to distant mega-landfills via train or truck. However much waste the City can divert from that expensive, polluting parade, all to the good.
I don’t know anything about the state-of-the-art in waste-to-energy nowadays, but even in 1987, we were told that someday, this technology would come back. The fun will start when they try to decide on the first site.