Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

Last Tuesday, on the 25th of August, I joined an impromptu group of Val Verde residents meeting near a mountain which, through no fault of its own, came down in a massive, unplanned landslide. We had reached out to local press and informed them about the situation, sent video, pictures, a summary and mentioned that a group of residents was at the site. No press was interested. No press came.

Diagram reproduced with permission from Suzie Cupp, © 2015

Diagram reproduced with permission from Suzie Cupp, © 2015

Many residents were alerted that morning on the Val Verde Nextdoor.com site after resident, Suzie Cupp, took pictures of the neighboring ranch property who lives close to the grading site.

Reproduced with Permission by Kevan Smalley, © 2015

Suzie Cupp views earth-moving equipment on Tuesday morning after alerting neighbors to unplanned grading on a protected ridge.

At the very least, we were there to watch the mountain during its last breath, record what was happening, and take comfort in the company of neighbors. Watching it unfold was downright disturbing, and honestly I struggle to describe what it looked like because I have never had the opportunity to witness something of that nature. It left me speechless. A mountain, an integral part of the environment and an intimate fixture in our town – a mountain that took 30 million years to grow – was scarred and cut down in a geological instant. Massive backhoes and bulldozers teetered at the top of the ridge as its height and sides were pushed, scraped and compacted. The original mountain that housed a unique ecosystem was gone. What remained was a roadkill of a mountain, just as ugly as the surrounding hillsides that had also been unnaturally sculpted and wrought. I originally thought that the roar I heard was the sound of the wind, but quickly found out that it was coming from the landslide.

IMG_8492

Grading at the IAC Commerce Center as it looked on March 28, 2015, months before the landslide

The planned grading in that area was completed many months ago. It appeared to have been cut deeply at the base and in such a manner that it made the mountain top-heavy, with no viable support to keep it from collapsing. The county had been keeping an eye on its stability and it became clear to people who regularly hiked and rode horses on the nearby trail that it was destabilizing. Like an avalanche, the slow trickle eventually turned into a torrent.

I carry no shame in saying that I am an environmentalist and a self-avowed mountain-hugger, because I believe that is a value that sound, lucid people possess. Razing a mountain is an extreme act. The reduced aesthetic quality is the reason hillside ordinances have been enacted and supported, both locally and throughout Los Angeles. These same ordinances prohibited the developer from touching the ridge.  At least, that was the plan.

Mountain Do

At the same time we gathered near the site, a determined, ballsy and positively lucid woman, Dr. Faye Snyder, a Val Verde resident and a psychologist who works with children and with the Los Angeles County and City courts, was making a lonely trip on the other side of the area. Frustrated with the lack of press and answers, she gathered sparse supplies, her service dog, some cashews, kibble, water and a tarp. She planned to stage a protest.

Several residents attempted to get a better idea of what was occurring. I tried to get information from the Department of Building and Safety several times that day, but was not able to reach anyone who had information, or anyone who was authorized to give more information.

I went to the site early after reading a group email in which Faye wrote that her phone battery was low on power. I was concerned that she was by herself in the sun without cell service, probably without water and with her dog, Shannon. Even though the hike through the open-space area is relatively short, and even though you can easily see any hiker from the road, I worried and left right away with a portable cell charger, some water, sunscreen and an umbrella. I did not find her there, and as others gathered, we assumed that she went home because it was over a hundred degrees and the walk to the ridge was somewhat steep for a person of her age.

Except she did not access the grading site from the same area as the rest of the group. She went directly to the bulldozer-business side of a nearby ridge. Unbeknownst to us, Faye had a plan to directly ask an engineer from the county for more information about the slide, its condition, the nature of the work that was being done and why it was being done. If not, she planned to sit it out by herself, at the top of the mountain or on the bulldozers, whichever she could access, until she got answers. She didn’t tell anyone because she did not want anyone to stop her.

She was right.  We would have stopped her.

On her way up, Faye’s ascent caught the eye of a 77-year-old supervisor from a nearby diesel truck servicing company. He quickly hiked up the mountain to speak with her as the site of a tarp-carrying, survivalist-packing, mothering-type of a woman hiking up a steep incline was something he did not see every day. According to Faye’s account, when the supervisor reached her, he was affable and contacted the business owner via phone. The owner said that he was also upset about excessive and botched grading near his business. The supervisor and owner then asked her how many weeks she planned to stay. She replied that she had planned to stay for only a few days and signed a release stating that she would take full responsibility if her car was damaged in the lot. The supervisor let her know he was leaving for vacation and they parted ways.

The next morning, someone had posted a news story on the Val Verde Nextdoor.com site about a woman who was injured, suffered a heart attack and was air-lifted to Henry Mayo Newhall Memorial Hospital from the top of a mountain in Valencia. Since no one had seen or heard from Dr. Faye since the previous day, people in the community were very concerned. The picture on the article looked a lot like the grading site and it also indicated that the incident was being investigated by the LA County Fire Department. Later on, the story of the injured woman was updated on KHTS with further details which stated that the woman was rescued while driving in Sand Canyon, fell off of a cliff in her automobile with an In-N-Out order and we let out a sigh a relief. Yeah, I know. Pretty selfish.

Woman Rescued from Mountain had a Cause

However, the woman who was rescued on that day did not have In-N-Out. In fact, I am sure she would have taken her top off and danced naked for a burger, fries and a cold drink, heart attack and all. It was actually our missing friend, Dr. Faye Snyder.

After she said goodbye to the trucker, Faye realized that no one else was likely to show up, so she continued to ascend the mountain, and left a few sparse, disjunctive emails. We all thought nothing of what she said about being on the other side of the mountain and assumed she went home.

Faye eventually realized she was on the wrong mountain and could not descend safely. She writes in a press release from her hospital bed at Henry Mayo:

Dr. Faye Snyder and Shannon the dog recuperating at Henry Mayo Memorial Newhall Hospital on August 29.

Dr. Faye Snyder and Shannon the dog recuperating at Henry Mayo Memorial Newhall Hospital on August 29.

After about four or five hours of climbing on the mountaintop I fainted and was unconscious. When I came to, I couldn’t move. I realized I was dehydrated, had shortness of breath and possibly sunstroke.  My legs were like jelly and I couldn’t lift anything. So I waited. After about an hour it was getting dark, I had to stand up and put down the tarp and got my things out. All I had was one bottle of water and some cashews, and a bit of kibble for Shannon because I had expected to meet the others. I set everything down and thought, we’ll just sleep here.

After it got dark, I gave Shannon the last of the water.  I heard some coyotes very close by – maybe 30 feet away. They started to howl and bark, and Shannon barked back. They were howling at her for several hours, but I couldn’t see them. Shannon was shaking and she wanted to run. The whole night I was afraid for Shannon and didn’t sleep. I just kept waiting for the sun to come up. That was the longest wait of my life.

As soon as the sun started to come up, I wrapped up everything and we started up the hill again. After we climbed for about two hours, probably by 8 a.m., we were pretty dehydrated, dizzy and weak… There was no shade. At one point I had left all my belongings behind. The higher up we got, the weaker the root systems, so I was hanging on to this one plant, and I couldn’t go up and I couldn’t go down. I figured no one was going to find me. I was stuck there for probably an hour, thinking about a lot of things.

And then I heard my name. Shannon started barking and barking. I heard another voice, and then another voice, “Where are you?” I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stand up. I tried yelling a couple times. And then Don, the supervisor from the day before, appeared. He had climbed up, and he had some younger guys with him. He had water for Shannon and me. I never cried during the whole ordeal, until I saw him. I didn’t expect to see him—he was supposed to be on vacation. Why did he show up? I don’t know. I want people to know what he did, I wish it would help his business, because he was a hero. A hero who was in very good shape.”

Click here to read Dr. Faye Snyder’s full account. (I can no longer find the KHTS update).

No Press for Actual News

Making mountains out of molehills is a really stupid aphorism. Aphorisms, in general, say nothing, so it is appropriate that Val Verdeans have been accustomed to hearing this and other illogic, while other have pointed out our ‘histrionics’ and ‘radical ideology’. We refuse to have the nation’s largest landfill in our backyard and so should every resident of the Santa Clarita area. A massive increase of traffic and diesel emissions from the transfer trucks will blow through the valley every day on their way to Chiquita.

At the rate of the current landfill size, there is already a high rate of self-reported illnesses from residents near the landfill and I invite anyone who challenges this to walk around the Lincoln neighborhood in Val Verde for an hour. I guarantee you will feel light-headed, nauseated, depersonalized, dizzy, shaking and develop a terrible headache. Well, at least I have – every single time I have been near the area to visit my neighbors on the other side of town.

There is nothing radical about our opposition. It is quite logical and human. For people who live near the landfill, it is about preserving our neighborhood, our local environment, our community and essentially our world. For others who cannot afford to move should the landfill expand, it is about health and sickness, and statistically, life and death.

Throughout the years of our David-versus-Goliath fight, there have been incredibly compelling stories, with relatively little news coverage. As one of our residents wrote, “trash isn’t sexy enough:”

  • Chiquita Canyon Landfill currently takes in a similar average daily tonnage as Apex Landfill near Las Vegas, Nevada. Chiquita is proposing to double the amount of their current waste intake. The scope of the project is huge on a national level, yet, LA Times has not covered the expansion.
  • Only a small fraction of the waste coming to Chiquita originates from Santa Clarita. Most of it originates from Los Angeles proper, including Santa Monica, Beverly Hills, LAX, LA Harbor, Ventura County and Orange County. As part of the Orange County bonanza, Chiquita gets Disneyland’s trash, along with the churro wrappers and soggy diapers from sunburned babies.
  • The Castaic Area Town Council approved a trash-for-cash agreement that restricts first-amendment rights for the Council, as well as the general Castaic population. I am not kidding.
  • The air quality sampling for the environmental impact report for this massive-scale project to assess ambient air quality for the Val Verde area (and all adjacent areas of the landfill) uses data and physical air sampling from AQMD air stations as far away as Newhall, Reseda and Burbank.
  • A public vote was taken at a special Val Verde Civic Association meeting which revealed 112-0 uninanimous opposition to the landfill.
  • While the landfill plans to become the largest intake facility in the nation, the massive Newhall Ranch project keeps plugging away, with plans to build new homes hugging the perimeter of the landfill, some as close as 500 feet. The landfill also plans to place the diesel-truck intake queue a little over 400 feet from a planned, approved elementary school, Landmark Village, in the Newhall Ranch project and is violation of state law.
  • US Postal workers have been reporting similar health symptoms as residents in Val Verde.
  • Most of all, and most egregious to me, is that the county completely refuses to address the issue of environmental injustice in the project, by claiming that Val Verde is not a legally affected population or a protected class of people. I recorded a podcast at the Val Verde Report a couple of months ago that goes into more depth regarding the issue of race in this project. The fact is that Val Verde is approximately 70% Latino and 54% of Latino residents speak Spanish in their homes. Per California law, industries and municipalities cannot place a project of this magnitude near a minority community. I wrote and helped file a civil rights complaint along with Citizens for Chiquita Canyon Landfill Compliance and SCOPE, as well as Latino individuals in Val Verde. The complaint was filed with the state Department of Justice, CalEPA, CARB, DTSC and CalTrans, listing the County of Los Angeles as the respondent. Latino residents and advocacy groups for Latinos in Val Verde plan to file a federal complaint within a few weeks on the basis that the project is a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Executive Order 12898 – because the project does – and it is wrong, legally and morally. In my view, this is probably the most significant and widespread discrimination issue in the state of California. It is time we stop putting our waste near minority communities.

The lack of care and consideration for the minority and general population throughout the Chiquita expansion is the one aspect that strikes me as being radical.

Ridgeline Between Val Verde and the Chiquita Canyon Landfill Came Tumbling Down

A major concern with the mountain coming down is that a protective barrier between the landfill and the town of Val Verde was severely compromised. As it formerly stood, the ridge helped to block the natural wind channel that runs from the landfill to Val Verde and the Valencia Commerce Center. How will the landslide affect the geology, air quality and hydrogeology chapters of the draft environmental impact report? Will they be rewritten?  Considering the damage that was done, I would be surprised if the permitting process advanced any further before this issue has been rectified. We wonder how and if the loss of the mountain will affect the health of our community.

I am going to take a wild stab and presume that a few (or maybe more than a few) people who make it to the end of this article may not feel empathy for Faye’s journey. I get it; on its face, her actions seem reckless. However, I think that it would be hard for anyone to accurately predict what they would do if their community were experiencing this type of environmental pressure. Even though I know I would have been uncompromising in stopping Faye if I knew what she was planning, I admire her purpose and resolve tremendously. In my wildest imaginings, I never would have guessed that my soft-spoken and patient friend, Dr. Faye Snyder, would scheme something like this. I still wonder what possessed her to do it. The only reason I can come up with was that she was pushed too far.

 

Thank you to all the journalists and local writers who have covered and written about Val Verde and the Landfill. And Dr. Faye, this one is for you and the hero who saved you. I hope you and your heart feel better soon.

For more information, please visit:

www.c4cclc.com

www.scope.org

www.valverdereport.com

GRADING 2014-12-31

Google Earth 2015-05-01

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “Making a Molehill Out of a Mountain

  1. Dr. Faye is amazing. She is fighting against a giant that will mow over all in its path.

    Here in Val Verde we were promised that we would have so much open space between Val Verde and the commerce area. Looking at your pictures, there is no more than a two block with of land in some areas. And that two blocks is for the Hunts project, another 200 houses.

    I guess Antonovich and his office feel that we are not smart enough to remember the promises they tell us at our town meetings.

    Extremely disappointed.

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