With newfound allies in Mexico, the Backcountry Against Dumps group is trying to get the Mexican government to ban Campo waste shipments on the transborder rail line providing the only direct route between San Diego and the reservation site 65 miles east.
"If they don't use a railroad, their landfill becomes economically unfeasible," said Boulevard rancher Donna Tisdale, leader of the opposition group. IlIf they lose the rail line, it basically shuts them down."
Tisdale and opponents contend the fractured bedrock under the landfill site near the border poses an unacceptable risk for groundwater contamination. That contention is disputed by the Indian tribe, its private contractor and various governmental agencies that have reviewed and approved the project.
The 400-acre Campo landfill, approved by the Interior Department in April, will be the first large-scale commercially operated waste facility on an Indian reservation in the United States. To be built in 20-acre phases, beginning in January and opening in Tuly, it is intended to handle up to 3,000 tons of nonhazardous waste per day for 30 years.
The tribels Ohio-based contractor, Mid-American Waste Systems, is spending $450,000 per acre on the project. The costs include double-liner and seepage-monitoring systems designed to meet or exceed state and federal safety standards.
The Campo Band of Mission Indians chose Mid-American over several companies that bid on the project, which the tribe considers crucial for its economic survival. The Kumeyaay Indian band stands to receive $50 million over 20 years for sorely needed housing, health care and education of its 300 members.
After failing to get the landfill halted by the U.S. government and courts, Tisdale and the opponents now hope to strangle the project economically by blocking use of its only practical rail line.
The San Diego & Imperial Valley Railroad, built in 1919, is owned by the Metropolitan Transit Development Board. It extends 148 miles from El Cajon and San Diego to Plaster City, an Imperial County mining station, where it links upwith a Southern Pacific Railroad line to El Centro.
A 45-mile stretch of the railroad runs south of the border between Tijuana and Tecate, under auspices of the Mexican government. Should Mexico bar shipments of Campo waste, the cost of operating the landfill would increase greatly. Waste from San Diego County would have to be hauled by truck or by a roundabout rail route through San Bernardino to El Centro, then back to Campo.
Despite the opposition efforts, Mexico is unlikely to deny Campols use of the rail line, said transit board general counsel Jack Limber. Nonhazardous waste is considered routine freight and requires no special permit, he said. Furthermore, any such ban would run counter to the newly approved North American Free Trade Agreement, Limber said.
"This is simply an ordinary movement of goods," he said. "I would find it curious that a significant effort would be made by some Mexican interests to bar the movement of this particular commodity when they're trying to encourage the movement of other commodities."
However, a Baja California legislator who sides with Tisdale believes NAFTA bolsters rather than impairs mexicols ability to block the project or its rail shipments, according to an aide.
"Before NAFTA, the Mexican government was very afraid to raise any finger to oppose anything against the United States," said Ernesto Reynoso, aide to legislative ecology committee chairman Gustavo Davila Rodriguez. "Now . . . I think we will have a little more power."
Reynoso said Davila has not spoken to Campo tribal leaders but has been in contact with Tisdale in recent weeks. Convinced that the landfill poses an environmental threat, Davila introduced a resolution of opposition that the Baja Legislature passed on Nov. 11 and sent to Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari.
Mid-American Waste Systems' general manager for the Campo project, Jay Powell, said the company is prepared to pursue other options to get waste to the landfill if the Imperial Valley rail line becomes an economic liability.
"I don't think it'll be a problem," he said. "There are other opportunities north of us."
Tisdale and the landfill opponents suffered a major setback in October, when a federal judge declined to issue an injunction to halt the project. A hearing on that lawsuit, filed by the County of San Diego, is scheduled in January. However, in ruling on the injunction, U.S. District Court Judge Irma Gonzalez indicated she had confidence in the reams of government data attesting to the proposed landfill's environmental safety.
Among Tisdale's allies in Mexico is Martha Rocha, leader of Amas de Casa de Playas de Tijuana (Housewives of the Beach of Tijuana). Rocha said her social and environmental justice group -- which halted construction of a chemical waste incinerator in 1991 -- is willing to physically block the tracks if the Mexican government does not ban shipments to the Campo landfill.
that kind of contamination and those kind of dumps," she said.
"It's very probable that with an
earthquake or with the natural movement of the earth
underground, they will have some kind of leaking. It's not 100 percent
safe. They lie if they say that."