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California toxic landfill cited for spills

Posted: November 15, 2012 3:12 p.m.
Updated: November 15, 2012 3:12 p.m.

Trucks haul material to the Waste Management landfill site just outside Kettleman City, Calif. in 2009. Chemical Waste Management operates the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi River

 

KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. (AP) — A Central California hazardous waste dump that has been targeted by fines and claims by nearby residents involving birth defects has another headache: The state has issued 72 violations alleging small spills went unreported during the past four years.

Chemical Waste Management operates the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi River at a remote site near Kettleman City, a farmworker community midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

State officials said the spills were relatively small, posed no health threats to the public, and were contained on the property, but the company's operating permit requires it to notify the California Department of Toxic Substances Control each time such spills occur.

The company disputes that the spills amounted to violations, and said it's working with state regulators to resolve the disagreement.

The state toxics department "has itself confirmed that all the spills were small in volume and did not result in impacts to surrounding communities, and that there never was any danger to workers at the facility or the environment," Jennifer Andrews, a waste management spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The state said the 72 spills occurred between 2008 and 2012 in loading and sampling areas. During that time, the 1,600-acre landfill was under scrutiny by environmental organizations and residents opposing its application to expand.

The company accepts toxic waste not allowed into most landfills, including carcinogenic PCBs, herbicides and other chemicals, and lead-contaminated soil from cleanup sites.

Last year, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the state toxics department levied $1 million in fines against the firm for having improperly calibrated lab equipment that thwarted efforts to accurately analyze chemical concentrations in waste. The EPA found the same problem with equipment five years earlier and said officials failed to fix it.

In May 2011 the state levied $46,000 in fines against the company for failing to report two spills.

Brian Johnson of the state toxics department said he expects the newest violations to possibly result in larger fines. The company could face up to a $25,000 fine for each violation. The case has been referred to the attorney general's office for a decision.

"It's my opinion that this will be a significant fine that will cause them to sit up and take notice that this is not acceptable behavior," Johnson said.

State regulations say a company must report spills verbally within 24 hours and follow up within 10 days with a written report.

Neighbors and the environmental group Greenaction claim the landfill contributes to a toxic environment in the impoverished town that has led to periodic spikes in birth defects. No link has been established, but both groups have opposed ongoing expansion efforts at the landfill.

"It's time to end the toxic dumping," said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction. "It's time to deny the permits for the proposed expansion of a hazardous landfill run by a company that has been unable to comply with the law for decades."

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