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Suit Filed to Force Cleanup of Toxic Waste Dump Site : Environment: The action by Santa Barbara County and the U.S. seeks $6.2 million in penalties. The hazardous material is called a threat to ground water.

TIMES ENVIRONMENTAL WRITER

Warning that a million gallons of toxic waste threatens nearby ground water, the U.S. Department of Justice and Santa Barbara County sued Wednesday to force a sweeping cleanup of a controversial hazardous waste dump near Santa Maria.

The double-barreled legal action by county and federal authorities seeks at least $6.2 million in civil penalties for violations of federal hazardous waste laws--and asks for a court order directing owners of the Casmalia dump to act immediately to reduce the threat to ground water.

Costs of cleaning up the landfill could reach $20 million, prosecutors said. While Superfund cleanups for abandoned hazardous waste sites have cost far more, the $20-million tab in this case would be a record in California for a toxic waste dump that is still open but not accepting waste.

Owners were warned four months ago that they would be sued unless the latest problems were corrected. “There really was no other way to get the facility owners to wake up and pay attention,” Santa Barbara Deputy County Counsel Timothy McNulty said Wednesday.

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Owners named in the suits were Kenneth H. Hunter Jr. and his company, Hunter Resources Inc., and Casmalia Resources, all of Santa Barbara. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency joined the county and the U.S. Justice Department in suing the operators.

A receptionist at Casmalia Resource’s office said Wednesday the firm would have no immediate comment.

Prosecutors charged that operators had failed to pump out and properly dispose of 1 million gallons in liquid toxics stored at the site. Only 20,000 gallons have been pumped out this year, McNulty said.

Those wastes were first detected in nearby ground water in 1988. While that water is not tapped for drinking or irrigation, authorities worry that the wastes may eventually taint aquifers that serve the rich farmlands of the nearby Santa Maria Valley and are also a source of drinking water.

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Toxics detected in the unused ground water include cadmium, nickel, and the solvents trichloroethylene and 1,1,1-trichloroethane, most of which are considered carcinogenic. For years, owners of the dump repeatedly offered assurances that an impenetrable natural clay cap beneath the dump would prevent toxics from leaking into ground-water aquifers.

In addition, prosecutors charged that the dump had been illegally expanded without meeting requirements of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RICA), the federal law covering the transportation, storage and disposal of hazardous waste.

Operators were also charged with failing to provide adequate site security and not insuring themselves against injuries to third parties. McNulty said that since the fall of 1990, the main gate to the dump was found unattended three times by state Department of Health Services inspectors.

The dump’s insurance policy expired in February, McNulty said, and was not renewed.

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“They simply shrugged their shoulders and said we just can’t afford this insurance,” McNulty said.

Santa Barbara County Supervisor Dianne Owens, whose district includes Casmalia, added, “These violations must be dealt with now and not another year from now.”

If the owners do not have the money to clean up the site, Hunter will be held personally liable, Santa Barbara County Supervisor Mike Stoker said Wednesday.

Backing that view was Jeff Zelikson of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s hazardous waste management division in San Francisco.

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“It’s our opinion he should be held personally accountable,” Zelikson said. “He’s got plenty of money in one form or another. The only question is, can we get it.”

The suits, filed in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, marked the latest turn in a years-long legal and political struggle over the landfill.

At one time, the Casmalia facility, which opened in 1973, was a major dumping ground for Southern California hazardous waste. It was ordered to stop accepting all wastes in 1989, but was allowed to remain open for cleanup and modernization.

Over the years, nearby residents have loudly protested against the dump, taking action that has ranged from staging sit-ins to block trucks from delivering their toxic cargo, to participating in a study of health effects from the dump.

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They complained of a broad range of maladies from headaches to cancer, and their concerns were shared by local physicians. The principal of the local elementary school was forced to dismiss classes several times after teachers and pupils became ill from noxious odors believed to be wafting from the landfill.

County and state health authorities, who also came under fire from residents for hesitating to act, eventually closed the dump.

But controversy has persisted over progress in shutting down and cleaning up the site. Until this week, operators hoped to win approval to modernize and reopen, Stoker said.


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