A major toxic waste dump near a Central Valley hamlet is poised to expand, and a troubled battery recycler in Vernon has been cleared to reopen according to key decisions Tuesday that sparked fury in nearby low-income communities.
At the center of both decisions is a little-known California agency, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which has repeatedly cited both facilities for violations of hazardous waste regulations.
In the Central Valley, the agency took steps toward approving expansion of Chemical Waste Management's nearly full toxic waste dump in Kettleman City by 5 million cubic yards, a 50% increase. The landfill, which accepts highly toxic chemicals, including PCBs, is already the largest of its kind west of the Mississippi River.
The decision to issue a draft permit, which could be finalized as soon as this fall, outraged residents and activists. Last year, the state announced that the company had failed to report 72 hazardous materials spills over the previous four years.
"It's an insult to the rule of law that will send a message to polluters that … it doesn't matter how many times you violate the law, the state will protect you and not protect the people in communities," said Bradley Angel, the executive director of the advocacy group Greenaction.
Maricela Mares-Alatorre of Kettleman City said she and others plan to keep fighting the expansion plans, which she described as unfair. "We're considered a lot more disposable than people in communities like Napa or Beverly Hills," she said.
Residents in the community of 1,500 believe the dump is responsible for serious illnesses, including the deformities of 11 babies born from September 2007 to March 2010. Three of the babies died.
A state health survey found that the babies' health problems could not be linked to a common source.
Agency officials said they take the community's concerns seriously and have imposed operating conditions that are among the most restrictive in the United States. They include cleaner-burning trucks and strict air and groundwater sampling.
"The concerns of the community are real and we took them to heart," said agency Director Debbie Raphael.
She noted that the three hazardous waste landfills in California are located near largely poor and predominantly Latino communities and announced an initiative to cut hazardous waste disposed in California in half by 2025.
This permit decision forces the agency to confront a very important question, she said: "Can we eliminate the need for future expansions?"
Jennifer Andrews, a spokeswoman for Chemical Waste Management, said the company was pleased with the draft permit and welcomes public input in the process. "Our facility provides a very important service to the state of California, and we want to continue doing that," she said.
Also Tuesday, officials at the Department of Toxic Substances Control were thwarted in their efforts to continue the suspension of operations at Exide Technologies' battery recycling plant in Vernon. The facility has a history of pollution violations, including complaints by regulators that at one point lead dust rained onto nearby rooftops and streets.
On April 24, state officials temporarily closed the plant, citing arsenic emissions as a risk to as many as 110,000 people nearby. They also said a degraded pipeline was leaking hazardous waste into the soil.
The company, one of the world's largest makers and recyclers of lead-acid batteries, disputed the allegations and accused regulators of taking "arbitrary and capricious" action under public and political pressure.
Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Luis Lavin sided with the company. "The Department's avalanche of conclusions, speculation and innuendo are not a substitute for evidence," he wrote in Tuesday's ruling.
By April 19, five days before the closure, Exide had reduced arsenic emission levels by at least 97%, the judge noted, so it "did not pose an imminent and substantial threat" at the time.
He added that the agency did not produce evidence that the leaky pipes caused harm.
The issue is not entirely resolved, however. Lavin's order allows the plant to operate under several conditions pending the outcome of an administrative law hearing that will resume in September. The conditions include adding wastewater pipes to bypass the damaged ones and performing tests of arsenic levels.
"Based on the judge's decision, we have reopened and returned jobs to our full workforce of 130 employees," Exide said in a statement.
In a statement, agency officials said they "respect but disagree with the judge's assessment and interpretation of data."
"Our goal of minimizing public health and environmental impacts from this facility remain central to our efforts," the statement said.
Some in the courtroom reacted angrily to Lavin's ruling with shouts of "Recall the judge" and "Corporate greed." Others wore surgical masks or carried signs that read "Arsenic kills!"
"This judge is contributing to more people getting sick," said Agustin Cebada, a member of a Maywood parents group.