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Hundreds attend latest meeting regarding proposed Gregory Canyon landfill

Another round in a decades-long fight over a landfill proposed near Pala drew sharp-edged comments and more than 300 people to an environmental planning meeting held last week.

The jammed hearing at the San Marcos Senior Center on June 3 marked another chapter in a long and bruising saga that has included numerous protests, environmental reviews, lawsuits, costly ballot measures, full-page advertisements and written exchanges on newspaper editorial pages.

It centers on Gregory Mountain, which the Pala Indian tribe considers a sacred site west of its reservation. That Luiseno band and others consider the area, which is also known as Chokla, the home of a restless spirit named Taakwic, who appears in a ball of fire to collect the souls of the dead.

Besides Indian cultural concerns, the proposed landfill has spurred fears of water contamination, traffic congestion and litter dispersal. The hearing, held by the Army Corps of Engineers, marked yet another environmental review for the proposed landfill that could blanket 320 acres of a 1,770-acre site south of Highway 76 nearly four miles east of Interstate 15.

“You have my assurance that we will follow the procedures and you can hold us accountable to that process,” Army Col. Thomas H. Magness said in his remarks to the audience. “It is the law and that’s the way we operate.”

The federal agency’s study – the latest in a long string – will take about a year to complete and focus on the landfill’s potential impacts on the nearby San Luis Rey River, area groundwater sources, cultural resources and endangered species.

The agency is one of many that must issue permits before the $45 million landfill could be built.

The controversy over the landfill has unfolded over more than two decades and it has etched its place in the region’s history.

David Lowry, a former Fallbrook resident and Temecula real estate broker, played a crucial role in acquiring the site and selling it to a development group. Lowry had crafted extensive political and business connections throughout the region before he moved to the East Coast several years ago.

Key milestones in the project’s past include a November 2004 ballot measure that cost about $4.3 million and is the most expensive initiative in San Diego County history. Another centers on the August 2009 death of Richard Chase, who received the nickname as the county’s “trash king” due to his dogged efforts on behalf of the project.

His widow, Nancy Chase, has since become the chief spokesperson for the development plan. Chase and other proponents of the project counter criticism by saying the landfill is badly needed and a thick liner would protect the river and surrounding areas from leaks.

Chase attended last week’s hearing, but neither she nor any other representatives of Gregory Canyon Ltd. spoke at the podium.

In an interview during a break in the meeting, Chase told a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune that no new information had surfaced at the session and the federal agency was “doing a great job of going though the process.”

A consortium of Indian tribes purchased a string of full-page advertisements in the Union-Tribune in the days leading up to the hearing. Those ads showed a church nearly engulfed by a sea of shredded and worn-out car and truck tires. Indian leaders echoed those concerns in their hearing remarks.

“Allowing the Gregory Canyon (landfill) to be built on the banks of the Chokla would be a kin to building a trash dump around the walls of the cathedral,” said Shasta Dawn, the Pala tribe’s historic preservation officer.

Mel Vernon, chairman of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians, equated the development of a landfill at that location to “basically committing suicide.”

“This is our Garden of Eden,” he said. “Our creation story is here.”

Other critics of the project were equally outspoken during the hours-long session that featured comments from more than 60 speakers. Many of the meeting participants carried placards opposing the project and wore T-shirts that read “Save Gregory Canyon” or “Stop the Dump.”

Project foes included tribal, government and environmental group leaders. Several of them equated the potential risks from the landfill to the ongoing British Petroleum oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico that has stained shorelines, caked birds’ feathers and impacted the fishing and tourism industries.

“Remember, BP and the government said offshore well drilling was safe,” said Gerald Walson, president of Bonsall Area for a Rural Community and a member of the Rainbow Municipal Water District governing board.

“If a spill occurs, it could cost billions,” Walson said. “If Gregory Canyon files for bankruptcy after a spill, who is going to pay for it?”

Rua Petty, president of the Rainbow water board, noted that key local and regional pipelines that crisscross the area together serve more than one million people.

“This has to be a major, major consideration,” he said.

San Diego County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price and several other speakers questioned the need for the landfill. Successful recycling programs have left many existing landfills with unused capacity and an operation at Gregory Canyon would need to import trash from surrounding counties to be financially viable, Slater-Price said.

“There is not enough trash to go around,” she said during her remarks.

Written comments advising the Corps of Engineers on issues to study during the review process will be accepted until June 18. Correspondence should be sent to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles District, Regulatory Division, Ventura Field Office Attn: SPL-2010-00354-SDM, 2151 Alessandro Drive, suite 110, Ventura, CA, 93001.

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