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EPA fines Kettleman City waste dump over PCB contamination

November 30, 2010 |  2:35 pm


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday levied a $300,000 fine against a toxic waste dump near a Central California farming community plagued by birth defects for failing to properly manage carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.

Waste Management Inc., which owns the facility about 3½ miles southwest of Kettleman City, in July was given 60 days to clean up PCB in soil adjacent to a building where extremely hazardous wastes are treated for disposal.

EPA tests showed PCB concentrations of up to 440 parts per million at the landfill, the largest hazardous waste facility in the Western United States and the only one in the state federally regulated to handle PCBs. Spills of PCBs at concentrations of 50 parts per million on concrete or soil constitute a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

EPA investigators also found that a PCB container label and some materials containing PCBs did not display data required by federal law, and that the company had failed to decontaminate PCB handling areas before continued use.

In a statement, Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said: “Companies charged with safely disposing of society’s most toxic materials need to faultlessly follow the protective laws established to secure both the public safety and public trust. Violations of federal environmental laws at the Kettleman hazardous waste facility are unacceptable.”

Bob Henry, senior district manager of the Kettleman Hills Facility, stated, “While USEPA’s regulations typically require cleanups achieve a 25-part-per-million standard, we elected to excavate to a significantly more stringent 1-ppm level -– the level EPA considers suitable for level for high-occupancy areas such as residences, day care centers, schools and other areas where children or adults might be exposed to soil.”

Waste Management said Tuesday that the EPA had "confirmed that the company’s cleanup meets all applicable standards" and remains authorized to handle PCBs under federal regulation.

“Extensive monitoring has confirmed that the small concentrations of PCBS were isolated to an area adjacent to the PCB storage and flushing building -- well within the facility boundary -- and did not present any risk to public health or the environment,” Brian Bowen, Waste Management’s director of environmental protection, said in a written statement. 

Last year, the Kings County facility took in about 4,000 tons of PCBs. Exposure to the compounds can cause cancer and adversely affect the nervous, immune and endocrine systems as well as liver function.

EPA officials on Tuesday said the company had cleaned up the PCB contamination and that the agency would continue to inspect the facility regularly. In addition, the company has modified its practices to minimize and detect hazardous spills, the officials said.

There was no evidence to suggest that it had posed any danger to nearby Kettleman City, an impoverished community of 1,500 people just off Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, EPA officials said.

A week ago, state health investigators ruled out the 28-year-old landfill as the cause of severe birth defects including heart problems and cleft palates and lips in Kettleman City.

But many residents remain distrustful of Waste Management, which has requested a county permit to expand its landfill operations. State environmental authorities said no decision would be made on that request until ongoing environmental exposure investigations are completed this year.

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, described the EPA’s action as “an enormous fine for enormous violations.”

“The next step is for state and federal regulatory agencies to take that into consideration and deny the company’s request for an expansion permit,” Angel said. “If a permit is granted, it will be appealed and challenged in court, guaranteed.”

In 1985, the EPA fined the company $2.1 million for violations that included operating additional landfills and waste ponds without authorization.

In 1990, residents defeated a proposed commercial toxic waste incinerator project by pointing out that the environmental impact report had not been translated into Spanish, the primary language of the town's citizens.

Now, residents are voicing concerns about the recent state investigations, which failed to find a common cause for the 11 babies born with physical deformities between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of them died.

“Why add more bad chemicals into the environment of a suffering community?” Angel asked.

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: A worker takes an inventory of barrels to be buried at a Waste Management facility just west of Kettleman City. Credit: Luis Sinco / L.A. Times