LAWSUIT ACCUSES FIRMS OF DECEPTION OVER DUMP.
NEWHALL - The proposed dump at Elsmere Canyon was little more than a smoke screen to push the reopening and expansion of the Sunshine Canyon Landfill, an Elsmere investor charged Thursday in a lawsuit.
The suit claims that Browning-Ferris Industries, which owns Sunshine Canyon, bought the nearby Elsmere Canyon from rival BKK Corp. in an attempt to pressure Los Angeles city and county officials to reopen and expand the Sunshine Canyon Landfill in Granada Hills.
Virginia Langford, formerly of Northridge, said BKK and BFI defrauded her late husband, Osborne, and a group of 20 investors from the San Fernando Valley by breaching a contract to build a 190 million-ton dump in Elsmere Canyon, located in the mountains between Newhall and Sylmar.
``This has been devastating,'' Langford, 80, said at a news conference held to announce the filing of the lawsuit, which amends a claim originally lodged in 1998. ``I've lost everything - my house, my health, my security.''
BFI spokesman Arnie Berghoff said the lawsuit had no merit, and dismissed Langford's contention that the company used Elsmere Canyon as leverage in the years-long fight to reopen Sunshine Canyon.
``That's stupid,'' Berghoff said. ``They obviously have no idea how the waste management industry works.''
Officials at BKK did not return phone calls.
Granada Hills residents fighting the reopening of Sunshine Canyon said the allegations are in line with how BFI has operated.
``I am not surprised at these charges,'' said Kim Thompson, a member of the North Valley Coalition, a group opposed to operations at Sunshine Canyon. ``This is business as usual for BFI.''
Leonard S. Sands, Langford's attorney, said documents discovered in December, just before the original complaint was scheduled to go to trial, reveal that BKK and BFI never intended to build a landfill in Elsmere Canyon. Instead, the two companies used Langford's plans to pressure Los Angeles city and county officials to reopen and expand the nearby Sunshine Canyon Landfill, which is owned by BFI.
``These companies shattered and destroyed this man's dream,'' Sands said. ``BKK and and BFI colluded to use the Elsmere Canyon Landfill as leverage to reopen the Sunshine Canyon Landfill.''
The lawsuit also charges BKK and BFI with racketeering, under a law often used to prosecute organized crime.
An arbitration hearing on the suit is scheduled for May.
In 1995, BKK sold its interest in Elsmere Canyon to BFI, without informing Langford or the other partners, according to Sands. BKK also terminated its contract with the group called the Landfill & Ecology Corp., whose investors were mostly elderly blue-collar workers, Sands said.
``I couldn't believe that they just did that,'' said Langford, who had been receiving $12,000 a month under the contract.
At the same time, BFI was pushing the Los Angeles City Council and the county Board of Supervisors to approve its plans to reopen Sunshine Canyon Landfill and increase the amount of trash allowed to be dumped there. Residents of nearby Granada Hills objected strenuously, saying it would ruin their neighborhoods and sicken their families.
According to the lawsuit, BKK proposed to increase the size of the Elsmere Canyon landfill to create a highly profitable mega-dump by including land in Angeles National Forest in its plans.
The U.S. Forest Service approved the plan, and county officials looked to Elsmere Canyon as an answer to a looming shortage of landfill space. But Sands believes the forest land was included to kill the Elsmere Canyon proposal.
``That was a poison pill,'' Sands said. ``BKK knew that would never be approved. The company wanted the project to fall apart so it wouldn't have to fulfill its obligations to the Langfords and the other investors.''
In 1996, U.S. Rep. Howard P. ``Buck'' McKeon, R-Santa Clarita, amended an unrelated bill and prohibited the dump from being built in the national forest, and plans for the Elsmere Canyon Landfill fell apart.
And Los Angeles city and county officials eventually approved BFI's plans for the Sunshine Canyon dump, which has since been cited repeatedly for violating air emission standards.
Last year, BFI offered to give Elsmere Canyon to the city of Santa Clarita in return for the city's lucrative trash franchise, worth about $12 million, according to city officials.
Instead, the city extended its agreement with Santa Clarita/Blue Barrel Disposal Co. and Atlas/Consolidated Services, but has yet to execute those contracts because of an ongoing audit.
``That proves my point,'' Sands said. ``Elsmere is a political football.''