Steve Viani was trying to convince residents at a recent town meeting in the Kern County farming community of Buttonwillow that it would be safe to truck hazardous wastes to a nearby disposal site when he glanced out a window and noticed a truck hauling liquefied natural gas.
“That stuff is far more dangerous than what we would be bringing from the McColl dump (in Fullerton),” Viani, a project manager for the state Department of Health Services, recalled Thursday. “If that tanker tipped over and exploded it would have leveled the school, the whole town. Yet they didn’t seem concerned.”
What most of the the 1,200 residents of the farming community are concerned about is the World War II refinery waste that the state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency want to truck from Fullerton to the Petroleum Waste Inc. disposal facility three miles west of Buttonwillow.
The McColl cleanup has been delayed more than five months because of bureaucratic snafus and lawsuits filed by residents near the disposal facilities selected to receive the 220,000 tons of waste buried at the abandoned McColl dump.
What may be the last hurdle in the effort to clean up the site could be cleared today in Bakersfield, when visiting Los Angeles Superior Court Judge H. Walter Croskey is expected to decide if Kern County officials and residents are correct in asking that the $26-million project be delayed until a report on potential environmental hazards is completed.
If Croskey rules that an environmental impact report is not necessary, health officials say the cleanup could begin within a matter of days.
But if the judge decides such a study is necessary, health officials say the project could be delayed six months to a year. More important, they fear such a ruling could set a precedent that would “paralyze” future attempts to clean up other hazardous waste sites.
“If we had to get an EIR for every project, it could have tremendous ramifications throughout the state,” Deputy Health Services Director Joel S. Moskowitz said Thursday. “It will not only cost a great deal of money and not only would there be a six-month delay for each project, but I guarantee you’ll be drawn into court every time you get one.
“Somebody will say, ‘OK, you proved it will have no ill effect on this, but what effect will it have on balding?’ Or they’ll say, ‘OK, you’ve studied this, but did you study it enough?’ You could be tied up in court for years.”
State and federal officials say the Petroleum Waste facility already has the necessary permits to accept the type of waste buried at the McColl site, which is predominately asphaltlike refinery sludge dumped during the 1940s into 12 pits in what was then rural Fullerton. Health officials said the soil contains sulfuric acid, benzene and arsenic.
Because the two-year-old Buttonwillow facility is already licensed to accept petroleum waste like that at McColl, health officials argued before Judge Croskey that they are exempt by the state Environmental Quality Act from having to obtain an EIR.
“It’s redundant on it’s face,” Moskowitz said. “It’s like what (Assemblyman) Ross Johnson (R-Fullerton) said. It’s like having to get an EIR to build an airport and then getting another one each time a plane takes off.”
State officials also maintain Petroleum Waste for more than two years has been safely processing wastes as hazardous or more so than those in the abandoned McColl dump. They blame the emotional upheaval and lawsuit on the mistaken belief that the McColl cleanup, financed by the state and federal funds, will generate waste that is more toxic and dangerous than private industrial waste deposited daily at the Buttonwillow facility.
“If we were a private business, we would have had that project finished in a year,” said Mike Golden, toxic waste director for the state Department of Health Services. “There are liquid drilling wastes, scrubber wastes going into that dump every day. As soon as ‘Superfund’ is associated with a project it has a way of generating a feeling . . . like the black hole of Calcutta. All the neighborhood associations come out and say, ' . . . look out!’ ”
That’s just what Buttonwillow residents did, but with justification, said Kern County Counsel Ralph B. Jordan. He said many residents were unaware of the details of the operation of Petroleum Waste until it was chosen as the site for depositing McColl wastes. Because it is a federally licensed facility, PWI was not subjected to local government approval or public hearings before it went into operation in 1983.
Once the facility became operational, Jordan said, residents were led to believe it would receive mainly petroleum waste generated in Kern County, one of the major oil-producing areas in the state. “The government is operating on the theory that you must take waste from anywhere if you open a site,” Jordan said. “Well, it was never contemplated (by residents) as a dumping ground for a substantial or massive deposits of highly toxic materials.
“There is great political pressure to dig it up and get it out,” Jordan said. “It doesn’t matter where it goes. Well, I’m a Southern California carpetbagger myself. I came here out of law school in 1963. And I would say, traditionally, Kern County is thought of as the end of creation.
“But we can’t just say, ‘Dig up your neighbor’s waste and put it in yours.’ We’re saying an EIR is necessary. We’re saying to the state, ‘Put out a plan.’ ”
Health officials and waste disposal specialists accuse opponents of being provincial. “There aren’t that many dumps in the state licensed to handle toxic wastes,” said Tom Donovan, McColl project manager for Canonie Engineering Inc. of Chesterton, Ind., the firm under contract to clean up McColl.
“If you let counties dictate what can and cannot be accepted, it’s going to cause serious problems,” Donovan said. “Toxic waste is not a local problem. It’s a state problem and a national problem.”
But even Deputy Atty. Gen. Susan Durbin, who argued the health department’s case before Croskey during more than six days of testimony, agrees that Buttonwillow residents have a right to be concerned about what is dumped three miles from their community.
“This is not a frivolous case,” Durbin said. “This is not a harassment lawsuit. The people of Buttonwillow have legitimate concerns.”
The Kern County lawsuit is similar to the one filed in Santa Barbara County earlier this year, when the Casmalia Resources dump was selected as the storage site for the McColl sludge. The lawsuit became moot when new EPA regulations required that the waste be deposited in specially lined pits to protect ground water from seepage.
Health officials fear that if Croskey demands an EIR for the McColl project, even private industries engaged in less publicized hazardous waste cleanup projects would face difficult legal hurdles.
“You wouldn’t know what you could or could not place in a particular facility,” Durbin said. “It could throw out all the rules of the game.”
But regardless of how Croskey rules, the McColl project is proving to be a lesson to state and federal health officials.
“One thing we’ve learned is that a lot of people are concerned about hazardous wastes and that we have to help people learn that it’s everybody’s responsibility and that it’s a problem we all have to deal with,” said state Department of Health Services spokeswoman Marcia Murphy.
“This is helping us anticipate the kinds of problems we’ll encounter farther down the road,” she said. “It’s fair to say it’s discouraging for the engineers who have worked on the project. It’s discouraging for the residents who live next to the (McColl) site. It’s a relatively new field. With each site we are learning.”
“We have tested the waters,” Viani said, “and we have found sharks. And piranhas. And alligators.”