Photos from the Vault

This SLO County dump ran out of dirt to cover trash. So your garbage found a new home

Marjorie Biggs directs traffic at the Los Osos landfill on Turri Road, where she worked for for 25 years. The dump closed in Nov. 1988 after it ran out of dirt to cover the trash.
Tony Hertz/Telegram-Tribune
Marjorie Biggs directs traffic at the Los Osos landfill on Turri Road, where she worked for for 25 years. The dump closed in Nov. 1988 after it ran out of dirt to cover the trash. Tony Hertz/Telegram-Tribune 9-19-1980 Telegram-Tribune

To paraphrase a song by Neil Young, garbage never sleeps.

There was a time where most of our trash had a second life. There are homes in the late 19th-century ghost town of Bodie covered with tin from flattened cans and walls insulated with newspapers.

“When I grew up in the ‘30s, people didn’t generate garbage,” Bill Cattaneo told the Telegram-Tribune in an Aug. 4, 1989, story. “Scraps went out to the chicken yard. Paper was burned, which of course you can’t do anymore.”

Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland changed the dynamic in 1909 by inventing affordable plastic refined from oil. Cheap products like styrofoam, plastic bottles, fertilizers and insecticides followed.

Most of us grew up in a world filled with better living through chemistry.

When I was in elementary school, the environmental movement had started to enter the mainstream.

Our class went to an ecology center where an educator — who may or may not have been wearing macrame — explained that we could help the environment by recycling glass and cans.

Even today, it is part of the school curriculum to tour a recycling center, which is now incorporated into the landfill — not in a lot behind the health food store.

The garbage company makes it easy to place recyclables in a blue bin and green waste in a green bin.

Still, every time I go to the dump, I see tons of cans and bottles tipped out by garbage trucks because people can’t be bothered to figure out how the system works.

We might throw those items away, but we still pay for them after they’re gone with garbage fees and taxes to monitor maintain the environment.

The Los Osos Landfill closed in November 1988 after the dump ran out of clay to cover garbage. San Luis Obispo County ended up spending money and making environmental decisions for what had started as a private business.

Garbage was then sent to Cold Canyon Landfill on Carpenter Canyon Road in San Luis Obispo.

On August 9, 1989, the Telegram-Tribune reported the county was being pressured to comply with state demands to clean up four cancer-causing substances found in a creek near the old Los Osos dump.

Dichlorethelene, tetraclorethelene, dichlormethane and vinyl chloride are commonly found when plastics and household paints break down.

In March 22, 1991, farmer George Martines complained that sandy topsoil for the dump had washed away and buried his sugar pea crop. Drought had prevented grass from taking root, according to the county.

As early as 1980, the county was becoming aware that the Los Osos dump was running out of room.

Ann Fairbanks wrote this story, published in the Telegram-Tribune on Sept. 19, 1980. (I’ve edited it to remove outdated contact information.)

Osos landfill days limited

Marjorie Gibbs has invested 23 years of her life in a dump.

She’s afraid that her years as operator of Los Osos landfill may be numbered — and that her investment in the county-leased dump will be jeopardized.

The lease between the county and land-owner George Sousa for the 35-acre site on Turri Road is due to expire in August 1988.

Bert Townsend, county environmental health senior sanitarian, said the Sousa family has indicated the lease probably won’t be renewed.

For that reason — as well as a recent question about how much soil there is on the site — Townsend has launched a search for a new dump site.

“I’m quite upset over what Bert is trying to do,” protested Gibbs, who has had a contract with the county to operate the landfill since it opened in 1958. “I have the feeling he’s trying to run me out of business,”

Townsend responded: “The objective is not to shut down the site. The only thing we want is to have an alternate facility available when that one has to close.”

The county Area Council of Governments — made up of representatives of the seven cities and the Board of Supervisors — directed Townsend earlier this month to investigate the possibilities of replacing the landfill. He’s to report back to the council in six months.

Gibbs — who pays the county $275 a month, which the county in turn gives to Sousa for the lease — claimed it’s “absolutely absurd to start looking now,” since the dump will last another eight years at the very least.

“There’s a lot of concern that it won’t last another eight years,” Townsend replied, “and it could take several years to locate a site.”

During a review of the county’s Solid Waste Management Plan this year, “a great big mistake” was discovered in a 1975 engineering study of the landfill, Townsend said.

The study showed the site to be about a third larger than it actually is, he said.

In addition, “there’s a big question as to how long the soil supply out there will last,” he continued, “particularly now that soil is being used to cover some erosion and maintenance problems at the site.”

Both Townsend and Gibbs admitted that the only accurate way to determine how much soil is left is to conduct a survey. But Gibbs insisted, “ he doesn’t have to worry about the soil. This pit will last a good 10 years, and there are three more to be dug.”

She pointed a pickup truck to the unloading spot and continued: “I have a huge investment here. I’ve got a $217,000 indebtedness just from operating it. My tractor needs a new undercarriage, which will cost about $23,000. Every time I have a repair bill I have to go out and get another loan.”

She said if the county were to find a new site, “I feel I should have the first privilege of running it. I’ve been here since 1958.”

Townsend asked anyone with a potential dump site in mind to contact him.

He said no decisions have been made as to how a new site might be operated. It could be a “strictly private business,” he said, with no county contract involved.

But Gibbs wants to make sure she is involved.

“In eight years (when the lease expires) I will have invested 30 years of my life here,” she said. “I feel like I’ve been doing the community a service.”

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