Image: mostly trueStatement: “The per-capita amount of waste disposed in the county has dropped in the past five years as recycling has increased,” State Sen. Juan Vargas wrote in an editorial published by the Union-Tribune May 7.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: Earlier this year, Vargas proposed legislation aimed at banning a North County landfill project that’s been debated for nearly two decades.

The 1,770-acre project, called the Gregory Canyon landfill, would be located east of Fallbrook, near Pala, just south of the San Luis Rey River and State Route 76. About 300 acres would be used for the landfill and the rest would be set aside for preservation.

Supporters argue the landfill is vital to the region’s long-term needs and its developers would take every precaution possible to reduce environmental impacts. Opponents argue that the site is sacred to the Pala Band of Mission Indians and a landfill would threaten to contaminate groundwater or the nearby river.

Advocates for both sides have jousted through two ballot measures, court hearings and by now, hundreds of public meetings. But with favorable court rulings, the momentum has shifted behind supporters. County officials approved a permit for the landfill earlier this month and now the project appears to be on track for approval by other oversight agencies, too.

Vargas’ bill aims to put a wrench in that trajectory by adding new conditions to permits approved by state agencies. It would ban landfills from being within 1,000 feet of the San Luis Rey River or within 1,000 feet of any site designated as sacred land by the California Native American Heritage Commission. This proposed landfill would violate both conditions.

San Diego County supervisors have urged state lawmakers to reject the bill, saying it would interfere with local affairs. Sen. Christine Kehoe, who is chairwoman of the committee the bill needs to pass, has publicly opposed it. After the Union-Tribune’s Editorial Board also ripped into Vargas, he defended the bill through an editorial and cited this argument (emphasis added):

What about the premise that we need more landfills for the trash we produce? The per-capita amount of waste disposed in the county has dropped in the past five years as recycling has increased. That trend will continue and green technologies will make the waste we currently bury a valuable commodity for clean energy or other purposes. In short, we don’t need another landfill given our current capacity at other sites that don’t have the impacts Gregory Canyon would cause.

When voters backed the landfill for a second time in 2004, the amount of trash disposed in San Diego County landfills had been steadily climbing each year, bolstering concerns about a future capacity shortage. Back then, county officials projected needing more space to accommodate more garbage. A new landfill at Gregory Canyon was critical for meeting that demand.

But since 2005, the amount of trash disposed in the county has steadily dropped. In March, the county revised its projections and found it wouldn’t need more landfill space as early as it expected. By 2030, county officials projected the county producing 5.25 million tons of waste annually — that’s about 2 million tons less than previously expected. Expansions at two existing landfills would create enough capacity to hold that garbage until 2028.

While Vargas accurately described the recent drop in trash, though, there are two important details to note about his statement. First, Vargas said “the past five years” when the most recent available landfill data covers 2005 to 2009. And second, state and county officials who monitor waste don’t attribute the drop only to increased recycling.

In fact, they attribute much of the decline in garbage to a slowed economy. As consumer spending fell and businesses scaled back, so did the production of trash. It’s important context, because an improved economy could reverse the current course and once again add stress to landfill capacity.

Because disposal rates have dropped and there are two important nuances to consider about Vargas’ description of that trend, we’ve stamped his statement Mostly True.

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