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L.A. Fights Back after Rural County Bars Its Treated Sewage from Reaching Farmland

Green Acres is a farm where corn stalks grow twice as tall as men and wheat sprouts lush and green. It's also, in a sense, an outhouse for about 3.7 million people.

LOS ANGELES — Green Acres is a farm where corn stalks grow twice as tall as men and wheat sprouts lush and green. It's also, in a sense, an outhouse for about 3.7 million people.

Every year, Los Angeles trucks about 65 million gallons of sludgy processed human waste to be spread as fertilizer on several thousand acres it owns to the north in agricultural Kern County. That's enough to fill a toilet about the size of an Olympic swimming pool every four days.

Kern County residents voted in June to stop accepting all but a fraction of the treated waste, but Los Angeles responded this month with a federal lawsuit. The initiative should be thrown out, the metropolis claims, because it discriminates against the city's "nutrient-rich organic materials."

The legal battle reflects a decades-old problem that has dogged Los Angeles and other large cities: What to do with all that waste?

For years, Los Angeles waste flowed from treatment plants into the ocean, sparking nasty legal battles with conservationists who said it was choking the area's marine life.

Finally, in 2000, Los Angeles leaders thought they had found an elegant solution: Spread the treated waste over a 4,700-acre farm the city bought for nearly $10 million about 15 miles south of Bakersfield.

The waste, which is strictly regulated, helps grow corn, wheat and alfalfa. Those crops are fed to cows, and the milk they produce can be sold in stores.

Green Acres was hailed as a success story, winning awards from the Environmental Protection Agency and others -- including one for a public information video called "Where Does it Go?" The farm's Web site shows pictures of red trucks trundling across lush green fields of vegetation.

"We thought we found a responsible solution," said Cynthia M. Ruiz, president of the Board of Public Works.

Residents of Kern County, one of the nation's most productive farming regions, think the solution stinks.

A group called Keep Kern Clean rallied around the slogan "Send the sludge packing!" accompanied by what looks like a dejected slug with a suitcase. A more pointed illustration they used is a photo of a two-story outhouse: The top door is labeled "L.A. County," the bottom "Kern County."

"We shouldn't allow L.A. to become the greenest and cleanest city in America at the expense of our own," said Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, an ardent opponent of Los Angeles "sludge peddlers."

Some worry the sludge would pollute groundwater; others are convinced it would hurt Kern's economy regardless of its safety.

The waste is not being used on edible crops but "the concern is very real that people would not be able to make the distinction," said Barbara Patrick, chairman of Kern's Board of Supervisors.

About half the nation's human waste is applied to land, according to the EPA. It can be used on crops for human consumption if federal and state rules are followed, but the agency says it is used on less than 1 percent of U.S. farmland.

Los Angeles is scrambling to come up with alternatives in case its lawsuit fails. Officials say the most promising option would be to inject the waste under Terminal Island, a man-made land mass at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.

That would give rise to a question Kern County critics used to get their initiative passed: If the stuff is so safe, why doesn't Los Angeles use it, say for golf courses or lawns?

A small portion of the treated waste is composted at a city park, but Ruiz said larger-scale efforts to use it locally failed a while ago.

"We tried to sell compost from some of our green waste, and couldn't find a market for it," she said.

Source: Associated Press

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