EPA sued over toxic waste dumps in California

Central and Southern California community groups filed a complaint about toxic waste dumps with the Environmental Protection Agency 17 years ago and never received a response. Tired of waiting, they have filed a federal lawsuit.

Kettleman City, Buttonwillow and rural areas of Imperial County are home to the only toxic waste dumps in the state. Grassroots community groups say that locating the dumps only in low-income and predominantly Latino areas violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits any recipient of federal money from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin.

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and the Obama administration “have failed to deliver on their promise to protect the civil rights of America’s low-income and communities of color who suffer environmental injustice,” said Maricela Mares Alatorre, a member of El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio of Kettleman City, one of the community groups involved in the suit. “Despite her claims that environmental justice is one of her top priorities, her agency’s conduct and record on civil rights is pathetic, embarrassing, and against the law.”


El Pueblo, along with Padres Hacia una Vida Mejor of Buttonwillow, are asking a judge to order the EPA to act on the complaint, which was filed in 1994 against the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, which issues permits for toxic waste dumps. The community groups say the department, which receives federal funding, must stop the “pattern and practice of racially discriminatory permitting and enforcement of toxic waste laws,” said Brent Newell of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment and the lead attorney for the groups.

Deborah O. Raphael, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, did not respond to the lawsuit’s allegations but said the department is “committed to taking a careful look at ways to improve our permitting process, giving consideration to the concerns raised in the complaint.”

Newell said the discriminatory practices began in 1985, after the California Waste Management Board (now CalRecycle) hired a Los Angeles consulting firm, Cerrell Associates, to help identify potential sites for toxic waste facilities. Communities least likely to mount opposition to such sites, according to Cerrell’s study, were rural; were made up of poor residents who work in farming or ranching; had little education or involvement in social issues; and were receptive to promises of economic benefits. Since it was written, the Cerrell report has been at the center of controversy over alleged “targeting” based on race and class.

Under the Civil Rights Act, Newell said, the federally funded Department of Toxic Substances Control should ignore the Cerrell report and issue permits more equitably. He added that a group doesn’t need to show an agency intentionally discriminated, just that its actions have a disparate impact and adverse effect on a community.

“The disparate and adverse effect is plain and obvious because all these facilities are in low-income, Latino communities,” Newell said.

Jennifer Andrews, a spokeswoman for Waste Management Inc., which owns the Kettleman City dump, said allegations of discrimination are “entirely untrue.”

“We looked for areas that were geographically suited for landfill use,” Andrews said. She said the Kettleman City land was a designated landfill site before Waste Management bought it.

The EPA said in a statement that it could not comment on pending litigation.

The California complaint is one of 32 pending since the 1990s. Over the years, only one complaint has been resolved, and nearly 100 others were dismissed.