Officials at the U.S. Marine Corps Logistics Base near Barstow illegally dumped barrels of hazardous waste at two landfills not licensed or equipped to accept such material, state and county environmental authorities charged Monday.
At least 33 drums of allegedly toxic sandblasting waste were dumped at San Bernardino County's landfill in Barstow in early 1989, and an unknown but far greater number were buried at a base dump in nearby Yermo in previous years, investigators alleged. Those who took part in the dumping could face felony criminal charges.
The dry waste, produced when tanks and other military vehicles are sandblasted for repainting at the Barstow repair facility, contains high levels of lead and other cancer-causing heavy metals, authorities said.
State water quality officials, who are investigating the dumping along with the FBI and local authorities, said the extent of contamination from the waste is unknown.
While tests have so far detected no heavy metals beyond the landfill boundaries, investigators fear the contaminants could eventually seep through the soil and pollute the area's vast underground aquifer. The aquifer is fed by the Mojave River and is the sole drinking water source for people in Daggett, Yermo and other high desert communities.
"This is very serious," said Hisam Biqai, supervising engineer at the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. "We have never had an incident where this type of waste was dumped in this quantity for so many years."
A Marine Corps official acknowledged that the dumping occurred and said base testing had "at some point in the past" determined the gritty sandblast byproduct was not toxic and thus required no special handling.
Lt. Col. Mark Schnell, director of facilities and services at the Barstow installation, added that an analysis in August by a Naval engineering lab confirmed those findings.
Biqai and county environmental health officials, however, said their tests showed that the sandblast residue contained high concentrations of lead, cadmium, chromium and zinc.
"Despite this conflict (over whether the waste is toxic), we are now treating it as if it is hazardous and we are formulating a plan to address the barrels in the dumps," Schnell said. "We recognize the concerns people have over this and we will respond."
Schnell said the Marines began depositing the 55-gallon drums of sandblast waste at the county landfill in February, shortly after the base dump at Yermo was closed for economic reasons. He said he did not know how much waste had been buried at the Yermo landfill, but said the dumping there could date back to the opening of the repair facility in 1961.
Currently, the base--the primary Marine Corps repair facility on the West Coast--generates about six 55-gallon drums of sandblast waste each month. It is now being disposed of legally at hazardous-waste landfills, Schnell said. Landfills designed to accept hazardous wastes are lined with material that prevents seepage into subsoils.
Although water samples from monitoring wells near the base dump showed contamination by some chemicals at more than 40 times the drinking water standard, regulators say that the origins of that pollution cannot be traced to any particular activity on the base.
"It's very difficult to determine where the contamination came from," Biqai said. "(The Marines) had many sloppy disposal practices there in the past, and so we may never know which was to blame for the problems we see today."
One of the chemicals found in high concentrations near the landfill is trichloroethylene (TCE), a widely used industrial cleaning solvent and suspected human carcinogen. TCE contamination was so severe in another section of the base that it forced the Marine Corps to close drinking water wells there several years ago and landed the entire facility on the federal Superfund priority list of the nation's most threatening hazardous-waste sites.
An investigation into the sandblast waste dumping was launched in March after a bulldozer operator spreading garbage at the county landfill in Barstow noticed military vehicles disposing of drums of unfamiliar material.
"When he asked the Marines what they were doing, they said they had prior approval to dump the stuff," said Peter Brierty, chief of environmental health for San Bernardino County.
After another incident, however, the landfill worker--who punctured some barrels with the bulldozer and distributed the waste around the site--became suspicious and reported the dumping.
At about the same time, Brierty said Marine Corps officials sent him a sample of the sandblast residue, inquiring whether it was suitable for dumping at the county landfill. The waste was "clearly hazardous," Brierty said.
San Bernardino County Deputy Dist. Atty. Steve Burtnett said criminal investigations into the dumping are being conducted by his office, the FBI and the U.S. Department of Justice. The FBI confirmed that an investigation began June 26 and is nearly complete, but agents declined to release details of their findings.
At least two suspects, whose names were not released, have been identified for possible prosecution, Burtnett said. State and federal law prohibit the illegal transportation and dumping of hazardous waste, and convictions under the state statutes, which are felonies, carry penalties of up to three years in state prison and fines of up to $25,000 for each day the violation occurred.
In addition, the dumping violates permits that the Marine Corps obtains from the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board. In the next few weeks, the board will issue an order requiring the Marine Corps to study the extent of contamination and prepare a cleanup plan, which may include the extraction and treating of contaminated ground water. If deadlines within the order are not met, the board may impose fines.
The County of San Bernardino faces a similar order from the board. Biqai said county officials were negligent in failing to examine the waste before it was dumped at the Barstow site. They will be required to evaluate potential contamination at the landfill and take cleanup measures if necessary.