Last night, June 3, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held a public scoping meeting for comments to evaluate the impact of constructing a landfill adjacent to the San Luis Rey River and the Pala Indian Reservation in North County San Diego. They solicited the comments to assist them in preparing a Draft EIS, or Environmental Impact Statement.
An eloquent, impassioned, and highly persuasive group of speakers addressed a standing-room-only crowd of over 300 people, all opposed (including my friend Laurie Schmelzer and me) to the Gregory Canyon landfill.
Tribal Chair Robert Smith of the Pala Band of Mission Indians addressed the magnitude of the spiritual desecration the landfill represents not only for Pala Indians, but also for the nineteen tribes in San Diego County who are fiercely opposed to the landfill. “One need only look at the ongoing ecological disorders in the Gulf of Mexico to realize the claims that the proposed dump would be ‘state of the art’ mean nothing. Thirty million tons of garbage would remain buried long after the landfill owners are gone. Standing between the landfill and catastrophe are technologies that sound specifically like a blow-out preventer.”
Pala Tribal Vice-Chair Leroy Miranda also spoke about the sacredness of the site for the proposed landfill and the tenacity of his tribal members. Even if the landfill proposal goes forward, he assured everyone that his children will continue to resist the destruction of their sacred lands and waters, fight for the protection of their spiritual practices, and join with others to ensure the survival of the planet.
Mel Vernon, Chair of the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Indians, spoke about how water and spirituality are not separate. “Water to us is life. It is alive. If we kill the spirit of the water by toxic run-off from the dump . . . not just our quality of life, but the value of life itself is threatened.”
He asked the audience why it is that we disregard and disrespect our water. “We get excited about finding water on the moon. We send up millions and millions of dollars for rockets to Mars looking for what, water, the same thing we have two miles down the road that we seem to devalue when it’s in our hands.”
Shasta Gaughen, anthropologist and Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Pala Band, called the proposed Gregory Canyon landfill project an “environmental, cultural, and political affront to the Luiseño and Cupeño people of Pala and neighboring reservations. . . . This landfill would completely desecrate and destroy Gregory Mountain, one of the most important sacred sites of the Luiseño people. Known as Chokla, this spiritual site is one of the resting places of the spirit Takwish. Chokla is venerated by all Luiseño people today.”
Mona Sespe, a member of the Pala Band, asked for a blessing on everyone attending the meeting. She spoke of Gregory Mountain as “our church, our sacred place,” profoundly more important to Indian people than merely the “cultural resource” it has been termed. “Gregory Mountain is a sacred place to our people. . . . From the past to this day, ceremonies, healing prayers, bear dances, puberty rites, and sweats are still being held there to this day. Plant medicines sacred to our people, animals sacred to us to this day. . . .We love and honor this place, Gregory Mountain.”
LaVonne Peck, Tribal Chair of La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians also addressed the spiritual nature of the area. “ The only way that our tribes can exercise our sovereignty is by doing it though our cultural and religious practices.” But that sovereignty will be compromised by the proposed landfill. “This landfill would be built on and near Medicine Rock, sites that are both sacred to American Indians in southern California and one of the homes of Takwish, an important spiritual figure to all Luiseño people, including our La Jolla tribe. It saddens me that in 2010, tribes are still fighting for things that are important to us.
Peck also speaks to the ecological impacts. “La Jolla lost 94% of our reservation in the 2007 fires. . . . To think that this [landfill] would just intensify the wildfires is very scary for our whole valley.”
And finally, she addresses issues of environmental justice. “If this landfill was Del Mar or La Jolla [very wealthy southern California communities], this would have been put to bed a decade ago.”
Other speakers addressed the “magnitude of the ecological catastrophe,” to quote Michael Klare’s term for the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. David Nagami, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, spoke to the absurdity of situating a landfill along a water source. “I cannot think of a more damaging project than building a dump on the banks of a river. . . . It’s the worst idea we’ve seen in a long time—the wrong idea and the wrong location.”
Joe Chisholm, chair of the Pala-Pauma Community planning group, spoke of the San Luis Rey watershed as the “river of life” for Lusieño and Cupeño people for 10,00 years. Today, the river is the source for one of the richest agricultural areas in San Diego County. Chisholm spoke of the absurdity of trusting that the landfill’s PVC plastic liner could possibly protect the San Luis Rey watershed where food is produced for all of southern California.
George Wilkens, a hydrologist with the non-profit San Luis Rey Watershed Council, also addressed the importance of the river. “San Luis Rey is one of the few watersheds in the entire San Diego County region that you can actually get a good sustainable water supply. There are not many places that have the type of aquifers that are found in the San Luis Rey. This eventually will be compromised if the landfill is built.”
Laura Hunter from the Environmental Health Coalition defined the fight against the landfill as a struggle for environmental justice. “The siting of these kinds of toxic detrimental projects in these kinds of areas is not an accident. This is a classic case of environmental justice.” She also addressed water issues: “Fractured bedrock, it’s going to leak.” She predicted long-term consequences for the landfill, with the waste contaminating the watershed for at least 1000 years.
And of course, it’s not only our species that will be affected by the contamination. In their Public Notice, the Corps of Engineers noted that based on previous surveys, the landfill would affect federally listed threatened and endangered species and their critical habitats. Among those species are the southern steelhead, least Bell’s vireo, southwestern willow flycatcher, coastal California gnatcatcher, and southwestern arroyo toad.
That this landfill proposal has been debated for over 20 years is preposterous; it’s also a testament to the tenacity and resistance of Indian tribes, environmental groups and residents who continue to call on politicians, government agencies, and now the Army Corp of Engineers to take a principled stand against this utter disregard for the sacredness of the land and the integrity of the watershed. And they’re united in their demand for environmental protections for all species who inhabit this particular part of our planet.