Kern County was wise to cut its losses and concede defeat in its decade-long battle with Los Angeles over the local land application of that city's imported sewage sludge. Kern County taxpayers will be spared from paying millions of dollars in legal costs they would otherwise have had to pay to cover L.A.'s attorneys.
That's the good news: Kern County got out of that long-running legal mess while the getting was good.
Los Angeles will be allowed to keep dumping its processed human and industrial waste — refined to “exceptional quality” as defined by federal environmental standards — at Green Acres Farm southwest of Bakersfield. That may not be the worst of the bad news.
The precedent this sets (or reinforces, depending on who you talk to) is that counties don't have the limited autonomy that states enjoy to protect the health and safety of their residents.
Kern County's legal team had argued that even the most highly treated sewage sludge has trace amounts of chemicals and substances that are not regulated by the EPA but could have harmful effects on humans and animals.
But Tulare County Superior Court Judge Lloyd Hicks, in a November 2016 ruling, said Kern County had been unable to show that any human or animal has been harmed by biosolids. His ruling invalidated Kern County's Measure E, a ban on the application on open farmland of treated human and industrial sewage waste, passed by 83 percent of Kern County voters in June 2006.
Measure E supporters weren't merely concerned about allowing human waste to filter into local groundwater. Many were also unhappy about the constant daily flow of heavy trucks driving in and out of the Green Acres Farm and across Kern County roads and highways.
The broader issue here is the idea that a municipality can outgrow its borders and simply foist the undesirable byproducts of its growth on another, unwilling jurisdiction (or appropriate its resources: farmland, in this case). But then history is full of such cases. These unwilling entities are typically referred to as colonies.
Former state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, who helped champion Measure E in 2006, nailed it when he told The Californian Tuesday that trucking municipal flush in the direction of an uncooperative neighbor does not speak well of those elected officials who might otherwise boast of their environmental credentials.
“You can’t dump your human waste on other, smaller communities and expect to call yourselves an environmentalist," he wrote in an email.
This particular disagreement is finished, and appropriately so given the circumstances, but, as Florez also pointed out, the white flag must not be carried into other legal engagements that may still come.
“I’m afraid that Kern leaders will give up the fight in general," Florez wrote, "and when that happens, they might as well put a big sign at the county line inviting sludge and other dumpers to ‘dump on us.’”
We are convinced that county supervisors won't, given the passion of this particular fight. And they must not.