A toxic waste dump near a San Joaquin Valley community plagued by birth defects will pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials at the facility, federal authorities announced Wednesday.
The settlement capped an 18-month joint investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control into the Chemical Waste Management landfill about 3 1⁄2 miles southwest of Kettleman City, a community of 1,500 mostly low-income Latino farmworkers.
An analysis of company records revealed at least 18 instances over the past six years in which toxic waste had to be excavated from the landfill after it was learned that the laboratory, prior to disposal, had mistakenly concluded the material met treatment standards, EPA officials said.
Under terms of the settlement, the largest hazardous waste facility west of the Mississippi River must use an outside laboratory for a minimum of two years and invest in improved records management systems, laboratory equipment and leachate monitoring programs, the EPA said.
“Significant shortcomings at Chemical Waste Management’s lab compromised the company’s ability to accurately analyze the toxic waste to be disposed of in their landfill,” said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. “These were serious compliance issues and they have now been resolved. But that doesn’t mean we are going to go away. We will remain vigilant and continue checking to make sure that the facility operates in full compliance.”
The action came two years after activists petitioned state and federal health agencies to investigate whether the 29-year-old landfill owned by Houston-based Waste Management Inc. might be linked to severe birth defects including heart problems and cleft palates among the community in Kettleman City.
In a statement, Waste Management spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews said, “Although we disagree with EPA’s findings, the consent agreement will allow us to move forward with a common understanding of acceptable waste management practices and will allow us to close out several complex regulatory issues.”
Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a San Francisco-based group that has organized the community, said, “Today’s fines and upgrades are very important. But a company with this many serious violations should not be entitled to renew its permits. How many chances will they get when they are dealing with the deadliest chemicals known to science next door to a community with serious health problems?”
-- Louis Sahagun
Photo: Kettleman City, a poor town of farmworkers just off Interstate 5, lies near a toxic waste facility. Credit: Liz O. Baylen/Los Angeles Times