A toxic battleground

Environmental activists and leaders of this impoverished community, outraged by unreported spills of cancer-causing chemicals, are trying to block expansion of a toxic waste dump that is the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River.

Activists say the history of the troubled Chemical Waste Management dump and new citations alleging failure to report 72 hazardous materials spills over the last four years show the company cannot be trusted to protect public health. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control issued the citations earlier this month -- and is the agency that must rule on the proposed expansion.

“If this new case is not enough to demonstrate a pattern and practice of violations, I don’t know what else the agency would need to see,” said Ingrid Brostrom, an attorney with the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. The 1,600-acre dump is just off Interstate 5 in Central California.

Company officials say the 30-year-old landfill is among the most heavily regulated and monitored facilities of its kind, overseen by nearly a dozen state and federal agencies. During a recent tour of the facility, Bob Henry, Chemical Waste senior district manager, said the spills in question were small, caused by third parties and cleaned up on the site.


State regulators “are simply saying we were supposed to report the spills verbally and with a written report,” Henry said. “Is this a major issue? No.”

Brian Johnson, the state agency’s deputy director of enforcement, disagreed.

“It is very serious,” he said. “We view these violations as consistent with a troubling pattern and emblematic of a system failure on Chemical Waste’s part.”

Residents of this close-knit community of 1,500, most of them low-income farmworkers, have long distrusted the facility 3.2 miles from the city. They believe the dump, the only one in California licensed to accept carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, is responsible for serious illnesses, birth defects and deaths among children.

A survey by state health investigators ruled out the dump as the reason 11 babies were born with illnesses including cleft palates and other physical deformities in Kettleman City between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of the babies died.

Despite those findings, many residents blame the landfill. This month, the city has rallied around Ivonne Rangel, whose 2-year-old son Daniel died of leukemia Nov. 12.

Standing last week beside a living-room shrine composed of cheery portraits of her son, fresh roses, toys, rosary beads and candles, Rangel said, “The first thing that came to my mind after my son was diagnosed with aggressive leukemia was that toxic waste dump.

“They say there is no connection between our sick children and the dump, but that is a big lie,” Rangel said, her eyes filled with tears.

Family and friends held a memorial service and funeral for the boy several days ago.

Maria Saucedo, whose daughter, Ashley, was born with a cleft palate and other ailments and died at 11 months, said she felt “offended and let down by a system that would even consider expanding the dump after all the legal problems and children born with defects.”

Chemical Waste officials say the facility is running out of room.

With less available space, the company has reduced the amount of hazardous materials it receives from throughout the state to roughly 120,000 tons a year. About 1% of that is PCBs, which are found in electrical transformers, voltage regulators and additives to lubricating and cutting oils.

In 1985, the Environmental Protection Agency fined the company $2.1 million for violations that included operating additional landfills and waste ponds without authorization.

In 2003, the waste dump was among 22 such facilities that California EPA officials determined emitted unusually high levels of radiation.

In 2005, the company was fined $10,000 for violating federal PCB monitoring requirements. It was cited again in 2007 for failing to properly analyze incoming wastes, storm water runoff and leachate for PCBs, and for failing to properly calibrate analytical equipment.

In 2010, the EPA levied a $302,100 fine against the facility for failing to properly manage PCBs. A year later, the facility agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials.

Maricela Mares-Alatorre, an activist with Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice and a Kettleman City mother of two, said activists hope the latest citations will be “an eye-opener for state regulators.”