BKK Corp. and West Covina look toward the CLOSING of the DUMP
Three years ago, the 583-acre BKK landfill in West Covina was one of the nation’s busiest toxic waste dumps, a money machine for its owners and the city of West Covina, grossing $23 million in one year and paying $2.3 million in city taxes.
BKK Corp. was reaping the financial rewards of running the only toxic dump between the Mexican border and Casmalia, north of Santa Barbara. Waste poured in from 6,000 industries ranging from dry cleaning shops to chemical plants to oil refineries.
Every day, hundreds of trucks unloaded 2,500 tons of chemical waste, oil sludge, contaminated soil and other refuse too dangerous to be buried in ordinary landfills.
Although nearby residents complained of odors and suggested that the dump might be harming their health, state and local regulators repeatedly assured the public that the dump, off Azusa Avenue in the San Jose Hills, was safe.
The assurances continued almost up to the moment in July, 1984, when state health officials advised 21 families to flee their homes because potentially explosive methane gas had seeped into their neighborhood from the landfill.
Nine families were kept out of their homes for a month and 10 for nearly six months because the gas was found to contain a cancer-causing chemical, vinyl chloride.
“It was a nightmare,” said Alan Kunihiro, a 38-year-old computer operations supervisor, recalling the evacuation of his wife, child and himself. “The police officers told us we had 10 minutes to get out of the house.”
In the ensuing days, Kunihiro said, police blockaded the neighborhood, “guys in space suits” wandered through with instruments measuring gas, and he and his family lived in a hotel away from their home and belongings for six weeks.
The evacuations pushed public concern to outrage, intensified regulatory scrutiny and pressured BKK Corp. into pulling its dump out of the hazardous-waste business in November, 1984.
Today, BKK remains closed to hazardous waste but continues to take in large amounts of household and commercial trash.
Company officials last November signed a memorandum of understanding with the city of West Covina promising to end all disposal activities in 10 years as part of an agreement to find other uses for its dump and adjoining property.
Development is expected to focus on about 120 acres in the northwestern part of the dump where there has been no disposal activity.
Later this month, BKK Corp. will file two massive plans describing how it intends to keep the millions of tons of hazardous waste already buried in the landfill from polluting the region’s air and water.
In its struggle to turn what would appear to be a major liability into an asset again, BKK Corp. simultaneously is trying:
- To close most of the dump within a year;
- To win permission to continue burying trash elsewhere on the dump for up to 10 years;
- To start developing hundreds of acres it owns next to the dump;
- To fight off lawsuits from 400 residents who claim that they were harmed by the dump and want millions of dollars in compensation;
- To expand an already elaborate system of hundreds of water and gas wells, drains, probes, flares and treatment systems to monitor, collect and destroy or neutralize landfill liquids and gas;
- To build a $7-million plant to turn the landfill gas into electrical energy for sale to Southern California Edison Co.,
- And to prove to the satisfaction of a Superior Court judge and half a dozen regulatory agencies that it is doing everything possible to safeguard the environment around the dump.
Meanwhile, the dump continues to bring in about $8 million a year in revenue. However, company officials say that does not cover cleanup costs, environmental controls and operating expenses. BKK Corp. won approval from the City Council last year to delay payment of a 10% city tax on gross receipts for a year and recently won city authorization to raise dumping fees.
Kenneth Kazarian, BKK Corp. president, said that 40 of the dump’s 100 employees were laid off when toxic dumping ended in 1984. However, employment has increased again, he said, although many employees now are working on environmental problems rather than waste disposal.
Kazarian said that the dump is losing money, but he declined to provide specific figures, citing BKK Corp.’s status as a privately held, family-owned company.
The financial burdens imposed on the company are so heavy, Kazarian said, that some corporate advisers have suggested that the best course would be to walk away from the dump.
“But we wouldn’t do that,” Kazarian said. “We’ve got a lot of pride in this business. If we were hit-and-run artists, we might have considered it.”
Regulators no longer offer rosy assessments of the dump’s safety. Instead, they say, chemicals from the dump could leak into ground water and threaten public health.
In fact, federal and state officials say that the dump, which is a mile and a half from the nearest water well, already may have contaminated the San Gabriel basin’s aquifers, which provide drinking water for nearly 1 million people. The dump owners vigorously deny that charge.
The public outcry against the dump grew steadily from 1980 to 1984, when BKK was the primary dump for hazardous waste from throughout Southern California. Trucks often tied up traffic on Azusa Avenue when they spilled dangerous loads--16 times in 1982 and eight times in 1983, according to West Covina police.
During that time, residents would show up at City Council meetings carrying signs dubbing the city “Waste Covina” and “Toxic Capital of the U.S.,” asking the city to close the dump.
That level of outrage seems to have abated. A recent West Covina City Council hearing on whether to ban housing construction near the dump because of potential health hazards was dominated by speakers for developers. Only a few residents spoke or bothered to attend.
Jean Arneson, a dump opponent who lives within a mile of BKK, said the debate over health risks and environmental perils associated with the dump has worn on so long that when new information surfaces, “the public is immune to it.”
Nancy Adin, a member of a West Covina commission that advises the city on the landfill, said public concern seems to rise and fall in direct proportion to the strength of odors emanating from the dump.
She said that odors have lessened lately, and it is not clear whether the decrease is attributable to weather conditions or to ongoing improvements in the dump’s gas collection system.
“I still smell fumes at least once a day,” said homeowner Carol Smith, who lives about half a mile southeast of the dump in Walnut. But she, too, agreed that odors have lessened.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District reports that it received 459 complaints from the public about odors from the BKK landfill in November, 1984, but only about 30 a month in the first six months of 1986.
Neither BKK nor regulatory officials are claiming that the landfill gas problem is solved, but regulators do credit BKK Corp. with remarkable progress in controlling gas around the perimeter of the landfill, reducing odors and easing the threat of gas leaks into adjoining neighborhoods.
BKK officials say they spent $4.3 million last year on environmental work and plan to spend $10 million to close the hazardous-waste area of the dump.
BKK has been trying since December, 1984, to win approval for a closure plan required by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The first plan was rewritten and expanded to 28 volumes and is undergoing another revision in an effort to satisfy the EPA and other agencies. Public hearings are expected later this year.
The company says that it is also spending $200,000 just to compile information and respond to state and federal orders requiring a new plan to protect ground water and air quality.
Sherman Roodzant, chairman of the state Waste Management Board, recently told West Covina’s commission on the BKK landfill that the financial health of BKK Corp. is of concern to regulators.
“The BKK Corp. must remain solvent to address the environmental problems ahead of us,” he said.
Despite heavy expenses for maintenance and environmental controls, the dump still may be more of a financial asset than a liability.
Plans for Electric Plant
There are more than 14 million tons of solid waste buried at the landfill, decomposing and creating methane and other gases.
A plant is being built to use the gas to generate electrical power for sale to Southern California Edison Co. The plant, scheduled to be in operation by August, is expected to generate five megawatts of power and could be expanded to 17.5 megawatts, enough electricity to serve 8,750 homes.
A study prepared for BKK Corp. in 1983 suggested that revenue from the plant could range from $18 million to $1.2 billion. Waste buried at the landfill is expected to generate gas for 30 to 50 years. Revenue will depend on how long dumping--and the generation of landfill gas--continues and on what price Edison will pay, the study said.
BKK Corp. also has the potential to earn a considerable return on its large land holdings--nearly 1,200 acres, including the dump and adjoining property, some of it in nearby Walnut.
So far, only about half of the 583-acre dump property has been used for waste disposal. The current disposal area covers 183 acres, including 103 acres where the hazardous waste was buried.
(The company had a permit to dump hazardous waste on 140 acres but did not use all the area).
BKK’s proposed plan would end the dumping of household waste on top of the hazardous waste, a major concern to regulators and residents, within a year.
BKK will seek permission from the Regional Water Quality Control Board to shift household waste disposal operations to 50 acres in the northwestern part of the dump. The board, whose regulations are designed to control leakage from the area, has jurisdiction over such operations. The new area would receive the 5,000 to 8,000 tons of municipal trash that is trucked to the dump every day.
All disposal operations would be phased out by 1995, the deadline by which BKK has agreed to close the dump entirely.
Land Vacant Until 1963
The land on which the dump lies was vacant until 1963, when its owner, Home Savings & Loan, obtained a dump permit from West Covina to fill unbuildable ravines with trash so that the property could be developed.
BKK Corp., which had experience in trash disposal, ran the dump under a lease arrangement until it acquired the land in 1978.
When the dump opened in 1963, there were some houses nearby, but much of the surrounding land was vacant until the 1970s when houses, apartments, condominiums and shopping centers proliferated.
Most of the residents who are suing BKK Corp. own or once owned homes in the Hearthstone tract along the dump’s southern rim. The suits also name W & A Builders Inc., accusing the tract developer of negligence and misrepresentation in selling homes next to the dump.
Series of Lawsuits
A series of nine lawsuits has been filed against BKK Corp. by attorney Herbert Hafif of Claremont on behalf of 400 people who now live or have lived near the landfill.
Some of the lawsuits also name home builders, Home Savings & Loan and chemical and oil companies that shipped toxic waste to the dump.
The first three lawsuits have been consolidated for trial in Los Angeles Superior Court on Sept. 4.
Plaintiffs in the series of lawsuits filed by Hafif include 17 of the families that were evacuated two years ago.
Ronald Gastelum, BKK corporate counsel, said that the company paid $494,000 for food, lodging, clothing and other expenses incurred by 20 families while they were out of their homes. Payments exceeded $20,000 in several cases and BKK spent $59,616 on one family, Gastelum said.
Catherine Graham, one of a group of attorneys working with Hafif, said that the payments did not cover the inconvenience endured by the homeowners.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District has been monitoring air at the landfill and neighboring areas since 1981, when it discovered high levels of vinyl chloride in the air.
Vinyl chloride is a colorless, odorless gas that was widely used as a propellant in household aerosol spray products until 1974 and in manufacturing processes.
Studies have connected vinyl chloride exposure to liver, brain and lung cancer, birth defects and skin lesions.
The state ordered a halt to the disposal of vinyl chloride in the dump in 1981, but emissions have persisted until this year, when the management district reported a decline in the first three months and no emissions in April or May.
Can Cause Tumors
Lynn Goldman, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health Services, said that vinyl chloride exposure can produce a distinctive type of tumor, but that such tumors have not been contracted by any resident near the landfill.
The air quality management district reported that the air quality standard for vinyl chloride was exceeded near the landfill on 156 days during a two-year period ending last January, but only six times since then.
Periodically, air samples are collected from every acre of the landfill and analyzed for methane, the most common component of landfill gas.
The Air Quality Management District will begin enforcing a new limit on landfill gas emissions in 1989, but BKK has agreed to meet that standard by the beginning of next year. AQMD officials said about two-thirds of the dump area now is meeting the standard.
Emissions Called Inevitable
AQMD air pollution inspector Ed Pupka said that it is impossible to prevent all gas emissions.
“It’s a naturally occurring phenomenon,” he said. “The name of the game is to try to control it.”
Regulatory agencies say that BKK has made progress in pulling gas back from the perimeter of the landfill so that it will not leak off the property.
According to state Waste Management Board officials, BKK has installed the most comprehensive landfill gas collection system in the state. The landfill is now dotted with 261 gas collection wells and 198 monitoring probes.
“People are no longer threatened by gas migration,” said Ric Notini, a waste management specialist with the state Department of Health Services. “This is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Notini said that the state now regards ground water contamination from leachate--defined as any liquid that has passed through waste--as a bigger danger than gas leaks.
The regional EPA office in San Francisco issued sweeping orders to BKK Corp. in March to develop new plans to protect the environment, after concluding that the dump threatens the San Gabriel Valley’s underground water supply and therefore “may present an imminent and substantial endangerment to human health.”
State health officials issued similar orders.
When the ground water issue was raised a decade ago by residents, BKK officials maintained that their site was geologically secure.
The site’s bedrock, they said, formed an “impermeable bowl” through which no waste could escape. State regulatory officials repeatedly backed that claim.
State and regional regulatory officials told residents at a meeting in West Covina in 1980 that toxic chemicals could not leak from the dump into ground water.
But three years later, the EPA announced that BKK’s system for collecting leachate was deficient and questioned the claim that the bedrock was impermeable.
Less than a year later both EPA and state health officials said that they had found chips in the bedrock--fractures and sandy pathways through which liquids could escape--and took the first steps in a series of regulatory actions that led to closing the landfill to hazardous waste in 1984.
Since then, regulators and BKK Corp. have been debating the threat to ground water.
Shift in Position
BKK Corp. has moved from its position of six years ago that leaks are impossible and claims today that they are insignificant.
In papers filed in Los Angeles Superior Court in connection with court supervision of regulatory activities at the landfill, BKK attorneys saluted the EPA for basing new rules for hazardous-waste disposal on “the practical assumption that all landfills leak to some extent, and therefore, that the relevant question for regulatory purposes is what levels of contamination in ground water immediately outside a landfill are reasonable and permissible.”
In August and October, 1985, tests of ground water taken about 200 feet outside the southeast boundary of the dump showed extraordinary levels of vinyl chloride and other carcinogens.
There were discrepancies in the analysis by labs for different agencies, but the concentrations amounted to about 2,000 parts per billion of vinyl chloride and 180 parts per billion of benzene. The EPA has proposed drinking water standards of 1 part per billion for vinyl chloride and 5 parts per billion for benzene. Several other toxic compounds also were found at high levels.
No Contamination of Wells
After those findings, wells were drilled about four blocks away along Amar Road and no contamination was found, easing the fear that the chemicals might be on their way to water wells.
The contaminated ground water is in the same area where residents were evacuated in 1984 when landfill gas was found at potentially explosive levels.
BKK engineers say they believe that vinyl chloride and other contaminants were carried by gas into the ground water.
Donald R. Howard, a civil engineer hired by BKK Corp., said that it would take 200 years for the ground water south of the dump to travel to the nearest well used for drinking water.
But Raymond K. Delacourt, an engineer with the Regional Water Quality Control Board, said that pollution of ground water cannot be allowed even if the contamination is a long way from reaching a drinking water source.
“Whether it is 200 years or two years away is irrelevant,” he said, since state law prohibits the pollution of all ground water.
Delacourt said that experts disagree on whether vinyl chloride and other toxic chemicals leaked from the dump in leachate or were carried out in gas and found their way to water.
The question is significant because of the hazard presented by leachate. He said tests have shown that leachate is “more polluted than raw sewage.”
Any leachate moving south of the landfill first would reach the Puente basin, which is not used for drinking water, before it got to the main San Gabriel basin, which supplies water to nearly 1 million people.
It is by this pathway that Howard calculated it would take 200 years to reach a producing well used for drinking.
Spread of Leachate
But there is a direct path to the main San Gabriel basin through the western side of the dump, where tests from wells show that leachate has moved beyond an earthen barrier constructed to contain its flow.
Delacourt said that there is no evidence that leachate has moved as far as Azusa Avenue, the dump’s western boundary.
Thomas Stetson, consulting engineer for area water producers, said that ground water moves at varying speeds, averaging several hundred feet a year.
Although Stetson said he has not looked specifically at how contaminants might leave the BKK landfill, EPA officials cited his engineering firm’s general studies of ground water movement in the San Gabriel Valley to conclude that there is “a significant likelihood” that drinking water could be contaminated by the dump.
BKK Corp. already has drilled 60 wells to monitor ground water and is planning to drill 60 more.
Profile for Predictions
Delacourt said that by carefully logging the kind of soil found during drilling, geologists can construct a profile that can determine where liquids might move on the site.
Delacourt said that BKK’s proposed new 50-acre area for disposal of household and commercial waste will have to meet new requirements for ground water protection before a permit is issued by the Regional Water Quality Control Board.
The new disposal site would have a clay liner about five feet thick, according to BKK officials. Underneath the liner would be a drainage system to capture ground water before it rises up through the trash.
And on top of the liner would be another drainage system to collect any liquids that had seeped down through the trash.
There was no requirement for a liner when BKK started accepting hazardous waste, and none was installed.
No New Permit Needed
The new disposal area is within the dump boundaries so it will not require a new city permit.
However, George Tracy, a member of the West Covina commission on the landfill, said that he opposes the plan and that he would rather see the dump shut down than shift to a new disposal area.
“I think it’s a mistake,” he said. “Until that place is closed down and there is some control over what is going into the atmosphere, I’m not going to feel safe.”
The orders issued by the EPA and the state health department in March require BKK Corp. to find out how much contamination from the dump has spread through air, soil and water and to take steps to monitor and control it.
New Plan to Be Filed
BKK has appealed the orders, disputing the claim that the dump threatens public health, but will file a work plan by July 31 to comply with the orders, according to Gastelum, the corporate counsel.
Until it opens its new disposal area next year, BKK will keep burying household and commercial waste on top of the hazardous waste that was buried earlier.
BKK officials say that stacking non-hazardous waste on top of the toxic material is a protection, adding a layer that makes it more difficult for landfill gas to rise upward and escape.
But EPA officials say that continuing to pile rubbish on top of a mass of waste that includes toxic liquids also can exert pressure, squeezing out the liquids like a rock on top of a sponge, and increase the danger of leaks into ground water.
Stop Date for Dumping
The issue of exactly when dumping must stop in the area formerly used for disposal of hazardous waste will be resolved as authorities act on BKK’s closure plan.
The plan, now being revised, calls for expenditure of about $10 million to cover and maintain the hazardous-waste area. Gastelum said the revised plan will be filed by July 15.
BKK Corp. has proposed to move 1.5 million cubic yards of earth from the northwestern part of the landfill to provide a final cover for the trash.
But the EPA has questioned whether the soil is suitable. The cover must have low permeability to deflect rain rather than allowing it to seep in and increase the leachate.
Karen Schwinn, EPA environmental protection specialist, said BKK has begun tests at the dump to demonstrate that the soil is suitable.
If the soil fails the tests, the company could treat it to make it suitable or haul other dirt to the site, both expensive procedures, Schwinn said.
The proposed closure plan calls for a covering layer of 7 to 15 feet of soil on top of the trash and the installation of a system of horizontal pipes to collect gas.
BKK also plans to build a leachate treatment plant to remove contaminants from liquids. Gastelum said BKK hopes to have the plant, capable of handling 50,000 gallons of liquid a day, in operation by March.
The plant will supplement a system that now collects leachate and runs it through air stripper towers, which draw off volatile organic compounds and funnel them to burners. The new system would run the remaining leachate, which now is solidified and buried, through the treatment plant.
Financing for Project
Gastelum said that bonds have been sold through the state Pollution Authority to finance the $10-million closure plan.
Gastelum said the company is also seeking EPA permission to use $1.2 million from a closure trust fund account, to which BKK contributed while it was taking hazardous waste, to add 10 feet of dirt on the southern and southeastern slopes of the landfill. That dirt would reduce the chances that gases from the hazardous waste would escape.
There was a time, about 10 years ago, when West Covina city officials attempted to persuade BKK Corp. to donate its landfill to the city for a park when dumping ended.
BKK balked and the city settled for a 10% tax on the dump’s gross receipts in what some city officials now describe as a blessing in disguise.
Mayor Chester Shearer said that the city is fortunate it is not going to inherit the dump and its problems.
Someone Else’s Problem
“I would much rather see it in the hands of private individuals,” he said, adding that he would shudder at the thought of government, with all of its red tape and bureaucracy, trying to clean up the property.
Shearer said that he thinks BKK Corp. is “responding quite well” to the landfill’s problems, given the complexity and cost involved.
But BKK has been criticized by regulatory agencies from time to time for missing deadlines and stopping just short of doing all that was promised.
EPA officials have asked BKK to delete a statement in its landfill closure plan that says: “BKK Corp. has fully complied with the terms and conditions of its operating permits and authorities.”
Instead, the EPA wants the company to list 17 warnings, directives and notices of violations issued to BKK by regulatory agencies.
BKK officials often have complained of receiving conflicting directives from the seven local, regional, state and federal agencies that share jurisdiction over the dump.
Gastelum said that jurisdictional problems have eased since regulatory agencies and BKK Corp. agreed to a court-enforced stipulated judgment that spells out some steps BKK Corp. must take to protect the environment.
BKK President Kazarian said that the company is willing to do all that is required to safeguard the environment, but that regulatory agencies sometimes want to go beyond that.
“All we say is, don’t build a Ferrari when an Olds will do the job,” he said.
Kazarian said that the West Covina landfill always has met requirements imposed by regulatory agencies. But Fred Landsberg, who served until recently on West Covina’s commission on the landfill, said that monitoring of BKK has sometimes been lax.
For example, he pointed out, when gas seeped out of the landfill and caused the evacuation of homes two years ago, the discovery was made not by any of the landfill regulatory agencies but by a Southern California Gas Co. employee who was making a routine inspection of gas lines.
Michael Miller, who has helped oversee the landfill as community services division manager for the City of West Covina, said that the problem has not been a lack of compliance with regulations by BKK but a failure of BKK and the regulators to carry the requirements far enough.
“The lesson is that whatever we think should have been the right applied technology should have been taken one step further,” he said.
GAS The decomposition of rubbish creates landfill gas, which, if uncontrolled, moves to the surface and then into the atmosphere. The gas, mostly methane and carbon dioxide, picks up toxic compounds as it moves through buried hazardous waste.
BKK’s system of more than 250 wells collects most of the gas before it can escape and feeds it into burners. BKK Corp. is building a power plant that will use the methane gas to run turbines to generate electricity.
LEACHATE Liquids passing through waste pick up chemical compounds, creating leachate. Experts say leachate is more polluted than raw sewage. Unchecked, it can contaminate ground water and invade water wells.
BKK monitors and collects water and leachate through a system of wells and drains. Volatile organic compounds are removed from the liquid through towers called air strippers. The gaseous compounds are then burned. BKK Corp. plans to build a leachate treatment plant to remove other contaminants.
COPING WITH THE BYPRODUCTS
GAS: A systematic effort to control air pollution and utilize landfill gas.
ELECTRICAL POWER PLANT Scheduled to open in August, plant will use landfill gas as fuel
to generate electricty for sale.
FLARE STATION No. 2 GAS WELLS (White lines) Collect landfill gas, mostly methane and carbon dioxide but also toxic compounds.
GAS MONITORING PROBES (White dots) Devices interspersed with wells to measure amount of landfill gas.
FLARE STATION No. 1 Both flare stations are burners that destroy gas collected from the landfill.
LEACHATE: Steps to contain a possible threat to groundwater.
LEACHATE STORAGE TANKS Hold contaminated liquids for treatment.
SUBSURFACE BARRIER No. 1 Earthen dam-like structures built to keep liquids from escaping.
SUBSURFACE BARRIER No. 2 LEACHATE UNDERDRAIN Captures and transports liquids.
LEACHATE COLLECTOR PIPE Carries captured liquids to storage area.
HORIZONTAL LEACHATE DRAINS Capture liquids moving laterally from trash area through the southern and southeastern slopes.
WATER MONITORING WELLS (Black Dots) Half the planned 120 wells to measure contaminants and chart water movement are installed. Some wells also pump water.
LEACHATE AIR STRIPPER Contaminated liquids are pumped through a tower, releasing volatile organic chemicals as gas, which is then funneled to a burner for destruction.
The stories shaping California
Get up to speed with our Essential California newsletter, sent six days a week.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.