A toxic waste dump near the San Joaquin Valley farming community of Kettleman City has agreed to pay $311,000 in fines for failing to report 72 hazardous materials spills over the last four years, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control announced Wednesday.
Brian Johnson, the department's deputy director of enforcement, described the fines as "a substantial and aggressive penalty."
The penalties were part of a settlement that capped an investigation into the Chemical Waste Management facility, the only one in California licensed to accept polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a carcinogen.
A review of company documents and monitoring records revealed "no sign of health risks to the local community" from the spills of lead contaminated soil, herbicides and other chemicals, Johnson said. Most of the spills were about a pint in volume, he said. The landfill's operating permit requires the company to notify the state so that spill cleanup is documented.
The violations will be taken into account when the department rules later this year on the proposed expansion of the facility, which is running out of room. The company also wants to renew its 10-year operating permit, which ends in June.
"When that permit expires, the facility will continue to operate under the old permit conditions until a final decision is made," Johnson said.
In an interview, Chemical Waste Management spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews said the spills were "not reported to the state because they were small spills, which were immediately cleaned up. In addition, we believed we were operating within our permit conditions."
The action came four years after activists petitioned state and federal health agencies to investigate whether the 31-year-old landfill might be linked to severe birth defects in residents of Kettleman City, about three miles away.
A survey by state health investigators ruled out the dump as the reason 11 babies were born with cleft palates and other physical deformities in Kettleman City between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of the babies died.
The activist groups People for Clean Air and Water and Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice criticized the fines as weak and renewed their call on state regulators to deny the facility's permit applications.
"It's absurd for the state to claim with a straight face that 72 spills of hazardous substances do not pose a health threat," Greenaction spokesman Bradley Angel said. "It didn't even know the spills had gone on for four years until it stumbled upon the problem in a company log."
The landfill has a long history of violations.
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 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.
In 2010, the EPA levied a $302,100 fine for failing to manage PCBs properly. A year later, the facility agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to manage hazardous materials.