Field Workers Finally Win Fight With Dump

TIMES STAFF WRITER

When the dust blows hard across the brown flatlands around here, people cover their eyes and wonder what foul things are in it.

For a decade, the farm laborers who live in this eye-blink of a town west of Bakersfield have fought a losing battle against a nearby hazardous waste dump.

It isn't right, they argued, to put poisons in the ground just a few miles from houses. Especially trainloads of radioactive debris from atom bomb factories. Especially when the dump sits on an aquifer and is less than a mile from the California Aqueduct, which sends Southern California most of its water.

If they weren't poor and Latino, they suspect, the big corporation that owns the dump wouldn't get away with it.

Kern County bureaucrats repeatedly said there was no danger, even after the operator--Safety-Kleen Corp.--filed for bankruptcy protection, falling $1.6 billion into debt. The dump is safely lined, they said. Buttonwillow was chosen because it was once remote, not because the neighbors were poor or Latino.

But Buttonwillow's field workers, many of them first-generation immigrants, carried on their fight. So much time passed that people measured their lives against the war on the dump.

Francisco Beltran, 49, says his daughter Griselda was 8 when he took her to her first protest. She's 18 now, a grown woman studying to be an engineer.

Recently, a resolution surprisingly appeared, largely because both sides say they are exhausted.

Safety-Kleen announced that it wouldn't take any more radioactive waste, even if it legally could.

"We want to return to doing business and not spend any more resources arguing," said Robert Hoffman, a Sacramento representative for the Columbia, S.C., company.

But the waste already buried at Buttonwillow--all of it dangerous if not handled correctly--will stay.

In the main, the Buttonwillow dump's business has been disposing of waste from the large oil drilling operations in western Kern County. In fact, the company is the largest recipient of waste oil in America, operating 400 facilities in 47 states.

It also operates two of the state's three Class One hazardous waste landfills, which accept the most serious chemical waste allowed to be disposed of in California. The other is in Westmoreland, another small San Joaquin Valley town. The third dump, in Kettleman City just up Interstate 5, is run by Waste Management Inc.

For years, the Buttonwillow landfill operated in relative anonymity. Then in 1991, the facility requested permission to expand and take more than oil waste. It might have been a simple procedural matter had the poor of Buttonwillow, aided by a determined environmental activist, not reacted.

Beltran said he heard at his daughter's school about plans to expand the dump. Beltran had worked for years in the cotton fields that turn the limitless landscape white in late summer and had proudly made Buttonwillow his home. To him, it was a wonderful, peaceful place, despite, or maybe because of, its high nothing-going-on quotient.

Then Luke Cole came to town. An attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, Cole is an idealistic, rangy man with boyish features that make him look more like a Scout leader than the trouble-stirring outsider his opponents see.

He helped organize the worried people of Buttonwillow, and offered his advice and expertise on how to petition the local government for redress. To Cole, it was a matter of simple justice.

Big corporations are used to running over the powerless, he says, especially when they live in places whose only apparent virtues are serving as burger and taco stops on the road to somewhere else.

Cole, who included a chapter on Buttonwillow in his book on environmental racism, believed it was no coincidence that all three Class One hazardous waste dumps in California were near small towns that just happen to have minority majorities.

"Kettleman City is 95% Latino," Cole said. "Buttonwillow is 55% Latino and 10% black. Westmoreland is 85% Latino. Just by coincidence, 100% of the toxic waste disposed of in California is in farm-worker communities."

Cole was talking at the kitchen table in Francisco Beltran's tidy rented bungalow on a dirt lot near the edge of town. Sitting alongside him were Beltran and another longtime soldier in the dump war, Eduardo Montoya.

Cole is widely known and feared by those who defend the Safety-Kleen dump. But the thing that really gets them worked up is their conviction that he has misled and exploited the very people he supposedly cares about.

"This is pure politics on Luke's part," said John Kyte, a Washington, D.C., attorney for Safety-Kleen. "He's wrong on the science, the law and the facts. It's deliberate fear-mongering."

Beltran disagrees, saying the people of Buttonwillow made up their own minds. "The more we learned, the more we worried," he said.

After Cole's arrival came meetings, speeches and marches through town. The tiny town boiled with activity. "We used to go door-to-door talking to people," Beltran said.

They lost the first big battle in 1994, when the Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the dump's expansion. The folks in Buttonwillow appealed under something called the Tanner Act, kicking off hearings that are still going on today. More controversy arrived years later, when it was discovered that the Buttonwillow dump accepted 2,200 tons of radioactive waste from Tonawanda, N.Y., one of the nation's first atomic bomb factories.

Even though Buttonwillow was not licensed as a radioactive-waste dump, it was able to accept the bomb factory material because of a technicality that had nothing to do with any danger the waste might pose.

Because the waste was produced before 1978, when the federal government gave authority over radioactive materials to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it was left for the Energy Department to oversee. And the Energy Department decided Buttonwillow was safe.

After years of fruitless struggle, a kind of despondency crept over dump opponents. Beltran's once formidable army of protesters has dwindled to five families who spend each Mother's Day together at a picnic.

"Everybody else lost interest; they felt there was no way we could win," said Montoya, 46.

Some moved away to escape the perceived threat to the west.

Beltran didn't quit. He got mad. "When I came to this country, I was 18," he said. "I always heard about how the U.S. [protected the little guy]."

Cole also was upset by what he perceived as the brushoff being given to the townspeople. "I've been appearing on this issue for 10 years," he said. "At every stage of the game the people from Buttonwillow have been locked out."

But Cole hadn't given up. He even came up with a new line of attack, charging that the company's bankruptcy over accounting irregularities posed a new threat. Kyte, of Safety-Kleen, strongly denied that filing for reorganization under Chapter 11 would cause dump operators to skimp on safety. The company has obtained new financing and will be in the black soon, he said.

"It makes a great sound bite," he said. "'Do you want a toxic waste company in bankruptcy?' But that is fear-mongering. That's a disservice."

The dump poses no threat to anyone's health, he argued. It's even a gross exaggeration to label as "low-level" the radioactive waste shipments it received.

"What we have taken is soil and building debris that contains very, very low concentrations of radionuclides," he said.

Nonetheless, Safety-Kleen officials announced two weeks ago that they are not interested in taking any more radiation waste.

The company even signed on as a sponsor of legislation (SB 1623) by state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) banning even the most inconsequential radiation waste from landfills such as Buttonwillow. That announcement came just after a Superior Court judge in Sacramento ruled that radioactive waste should go only into landfills designed for it.

For both sides, it is something of a deal with the devil. For Safety-Kleen, the advantage is that Romero's bill exempts from regulation naturally occurring radiation.

That would include wastes from oil and gas exploration, the bulk of Safety-Kleen's business, even though those materials can be as radioactive as bricks from an old nuclear facility.

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