The long-delayed plan to clean up Fullerton's McColl hazardous waste dump suffered another setback Wednesday when a Kern County Superior Court judge issued an order barring trucks from transporting the sludge to a Buttonwillow disposal site until environmental concerns are heard.
The temporary restraining order, issued by Presiding Judge James M. Stuart, is effective until May 17, when a hearing will be held to determine whether an environmental report must be prepared on the state health department's plan to truck 200,000 tons of excavated World War II refinery waste to the Petroleum Waste Inc. site, 35 miles west of Bakersfield.
According to a spokesman for Indiana-based Canonie Engineers, the state's contractor for the cleanup, the first trucks are scheduled to roll May 23.
Kern County officials said they had heard several dates mentioned for the start-up of the McColl project and they wanted to be sure they had their day in court before the waste arrived.
"This holds the status quo until May 17," said Kern County's County Counsel Ralph B. Jordan. "We're happy, yes. We didn't want to be trying the issue (of the county's environmental concerns) after the state had already begun hauling."
In asking for the restraining order, Kern County asked that the court require the state health department to prepare an environmental impact report on its plan to transport the McColl waste to Buttonwillow and store it at the Petroleum Waste Inc. facility, Jordan said.
Repeat of Earlier Uproar
Further, the lawsuit contends that the Buttonwillow site is not authorized to handle some of the chemicals found in the McColl waste, he said.
The controversy in Kern County is a virtual repeat of the uproar earlier this year in Santa Barbara County, where the McColl waste originally was headed.
Santa Barbara County and city officials filed a lawsuit in February in an attempt to stop the state Department of Health Services from trucking the unearthed McColl sludge to the Casmalia Resources landfill, 12 miles southwest of Santa Maria. The Santa Barbara officials argued that a full environmental impact report was called for because residents along the trucking route and near the landfill would be exposed to health risks.
The Santa Barbara lawsuit became moot, however, when the state abandoned its plan to take the waste to Casmalia. The engineering and transportation contractors hired by the state for the McColl cleanup had been unable to reach an agreement on price with the Casmalia landfill owner, who was seeking to quadruple his original charges.
Triggering the hitch was an edict by the federal Environmental Protection Agency--which is footing 90% of McColl's estimated $25- to $26-million cleanup bill--requiring the construction of an expensive, double-lined vault to prevent ground-water contamination.
After calling for new bids from several disposal site owners, the state's contractors for the McColl project selected Petroleum Waste Inc.'s Buttonwillow landfill.
But residents and officials in Kern County were angered by the state's abrupt decision.
State officials took plenty of time studying the problem at the Fullerton site but did not consult Kern County authorities on the equally important decision to transfer the hazardous waste to Buttonwillow, said Kern County Supervisor Trice Harvey.
"They don't have the time to bother with us, and we are saying (with the lawsuit), you must take the time to bother with us," Harvey said.
"There have been no public hearings, no environmental impact report. The people feel it is being crammed down their throats," said Thomas Fallgatter, a Bakersfield attorney who said he will file a lawsuit on behalf of Buttonwillow residents next week.
More than 600 people, including the local schools superintendent, have signed a petition protesting the McColl plan, he said.
Study Already Done
Susan Durbin, deputy attorney general who is representing the state health department, said that a complete environmental impact report was developed on the Buttonwillow facility three years ago when it was given its permit. At that time, the officials knew that trucks would haul waste through the area and deposit it at the site, she said.
"All that needs to be done has been done. We don't have to do what would be essentially a duplicate environmental impact report. That would be ridiculous," she said in an interview.
Durbin said she did not expect the May 17 hearing to further delay the scheduled cleanup because "I expect to prevail."
But Supervisor Harvey said the disposal site was approved to take only locally produced waste from nearby oil operations.
"No one anticipated that we'd be receiving something like this, and we don't feel our EIR addressed that at all. They've had plenty of time to serve the needs of the other community (Fullerton) but not our community. And we resent that," he said.
He said it is not fair that the area that is being cleaned up bears no responsibility for the ultimate storage of the McColl waste.
'Politically Not Expedient'
"I sympathize with them. I wish they weren't living on top of it. But it is politically not expedient to bring it here," Harvey said. The residents of rural Buttonwillow were not eager to see the construction of the Petroleum Waste Inc. site in the first place, he said.
"They're up in arms about this," he said.
But Durbin responded by saying that Kern County is "100% authorized to accept that (McColl) waste. Kern county has definitely not been left out. Their concerns have been addressed."