HIS WORK'S REALLY PILING UP LANDFILL INSPECTOR GETS CAUGHT IN MIDDLE.
In social settings, Richard Lange has been known to fib about what he does for a living.
It's not that he's embarrassed by his position or sheepish about his duties. But when you're the county's lead health and safety inspector at Sunshine Canyon Landfill, everyone has an opinion on your workplace.
``Nobody is for the inspector: They're either for the community or for the operator,'' Lange said. ``I avoid talking about the landfill like the plague.''
Lange is the only full-time, on-site landfill inspector in the state.
It's a job that puts him smack in the middle of an ongoing landfill battle - between neighbors intent on closing the dump, politicians who support the dump one year and angle to close it the next, and a company trying to expand its lucrative business.
At the community's insistence, Los Angeles County supervisors created Lange's position back in 1991, when they approved the new Sunshine Canyon Landfill, one of the state's largest dumps. Browning Ferris Industries pays the county $185,000 a year to cover Lange's salary and the cost of providing part-time weekend inspectors.
He's at the landfill from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursdays. Other inspectors cover Fridays and Saturdays, and the dump is closed Sundays.
Each day, Lange cruises the mountainous landfill, surveys the current dumping spot and fills out paperwork cloistered in his compact office housed in a portable trailer just big enough for two desks, a couch and book shelves filled with thick technical reports.
At least twice a day, he drives through the nearby Granada Hills neighborhood in his BFI-issued white 4-by-4 truck to check for litter, dust and odors - some of the most common complaints from the community.
``To the best of my knowledge, no dust or litter on the county side (of the landfill) has ever gone to the community since the landfill opened,'' he said.
Lange describes his inspection style as finicky about health and safety issues but flexible when it comes to some aesthetic details on site, such as a bit of trash poking out through the top layer of dirt or dump road that's a bit too dusty. In those cases, he'll usually give management a chance to fix the problem.
``You don't get paid for violations; you don't get promoted for writing a violation,'' Lange said. ``I just want to make sure they're operating in a safe manner first.''
He is adamant that workers have good light when directing traffic in the dark. He is militant when it comes to well-organized movement of trucks and heavy equipment through the dump.
Workers are always on their toes, a little more alert when Lange makes his rounds. They used to warn each other over the radio system that he was on the look-out - the code being ``the eagle has landed.'' It took Lange a while to figure out he was ``the eagle.''
Neighborhood activists consider Lange their watchdog behind the landfill gates.
``Richard is the one person at BFI that we trust,'' said Kim Thompson, who helps lead the North Valley Coalition's fight against the landfill. ``He does everything he can to keep that place as safe as it is. Sometimes we fight with him over issues that he really can't control. But we get terrified that Richard is going to leave.'' Activists follow Lange's work closely. A thermometer posted on the corner of Rinaldi Street and Balboa Boulevard has tracked violations at the landfill - 96 through early October.
Sunshine has been called the most policed landfill in the state, and Lange's daily scrutiny has been blamed for the 96 violations dump operators racked up over the last seven years.
``You wanna see the hair on the back of my neck stand up - tell me that,'' Lange said during an interview in his office at the landfill.
Yes, Sunshine Canyon Landfill probably is the most heavily regulated landfill, Lange said. But that doesn't mean it is held to a higher standard.
``They're held to the standard - every day,'' Lange said.
BFI managers agreed.
``We're held to the same standards as any other landfill,'' BFI District Manager Greg Loughnane said. ``Statistically, when you have someone watching you 3,500 hours versus 100 hours, there is more opportunity for someone to see something.''
Still, Lange said, he's given more violations to BFI than he's written in his 28-year career.
BFI got three violations the first three years of operation. Then Allied Waste Industries bought BFI in 1999, and the dump got 93 violations in the next five years, with 47 violations in 2001 alone, Lange said. The company has gotten seven violations this year, most for an ongoing problem of landfill gas accumulating beneath the landfill's liner.
For comparison, Bradley Landfill in Sun Valley is inspected about once a week and has had 68 violations since 1997, according to state data. Puente Hills Landfill in the San Gabriel Valley and Kiefer Road Landfill in Sacramento are inspected monthly and have had 1 and 8 violations since 1997, respectively.
The number of BFI's violations has often been taken out of perspective, Loughnane said. ``Most of them are fixed almost immediately and don't have long-standing environmental or safety hazards associated with them.''
But landfill opponents are furious that violations don't result in penalties if they are fixed. That's state law.
There's also a concern among some activists that Lange isn't supported by county officials. In 2001, the head of the county's solid waste management program proposed removing the full-time inspector, saying there were no special problems at Sunshine that required an on-site watchdog.
The community was incensed, and the county officials quickly decided to keep the inspector.
But activists still have lingering concerns.
``I'm not 100 percent confident today that Richard gets the support he needs,'' said Wayde Hunter, president of the North Valley Coalition.
But Lange said he has plenty of support.
``I'm surprised they've allowed me to sometimes go as far as maybe I've gone in the past,'' he said. ``I've never been pressured by anyone at the county. I've never been called on the carpet about any violations I've issued in the past.''
Lange's bosses now think having a full-time inspector at Sunshine is a good idea, but they wouldn't necessarily recommend it for other landfills.
``It's going to be difficult to say that you'd want to require it for every single landfill, because that's a lot of manpower,'' said Virginia Maloles, chief environmental health specialist with the county's Department of Health Services solid waste management arm. ``But it's a case-by-case basis, if the concern is there and it's something the community would like to have.
``For them, it's an assurance that at least someone is watching every single day.''
Lange will be joined by another full-time, on-site inspector from the city next year, if BFI gets the final permits needed to expand the dump into Granada Hills. The City Council approved the expansion in 1999, and, later, responding to community concerns, the council voted to require its own inspector.
Ultimately, the city and county side will be joined into one giant, 90 million-ton dump with one joint inspector.
Will on-site landfill inspectors become the standard in future projects? Lange said he doesn't think they are necessary at all dumps.
``When you have good management and operators and they're conscientious, you don't really need a full-time inspector,'' Lange added. ``When they behave, it actually makes my job harder. When I'm writing violations, the public loves it. When I'm not, people start to wonder what I'm doing up here.''
Kerry Cavanaugh, (818) 713-3746
(1 -- color) Richard Lange, environmental health staff specialist for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, inspects operations at Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills.
(2 -- color) Richard Lange says that, in his job, ``nobody is for the inspector: they're either for the community or for the operator.''
Hans Gutknecht/Staff Photographer
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|Publication:||Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)|
|Date:||Oct 20, 2003|
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