In a move it described as the toughest enforcement action in the western United States, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday charged a major hazardous waste dump serving Southern California with 129 violations of federal environmental safety laws and sought $7.36 million in penalties.
The EPA charges against the Kettleman Hills waste dump coincided with the release of a yearlong study by six environmental groups that concluded that all five of the state's Class 1 dumps were leaking and could be threatening water supplies.
Dual Violations Charged
The study contends that Kettleman Hills and four other Class 1 commercial dumps, the only ones allowed to accept the most dangerous wastes, violate both federal and state anti-pollution standards. It also cast doubt on whether the dumps can meet stringent federal standards that take effect Nov. 8 for financial responsibility and monitoring of leaks.
Detailing the EPA's charges against Kettleman Hills, regional administrator Judith E. Ayres said Kettleman Hills, once heralded as one of the safest and best-run hazardous waste dumps in the nation, had repeatedly flouted environmental quality laws.
"This is a situation of gross non-compliance with the federally mandated requirements for a hazardous waste disposal facility," Ayres said. "The Kettleman Hills facility is in flagrant violation of federal environmental laws. Such violations will not be tolerated."
Joseph Zorn, general manager at Kettleman Hills in the western San Joaquin Valley, said Thursday that until company attorneys complete their review of the charges there will be no comment. Kettleman Hills is owned by Chemical Waste Management Inc. of Oak Brook, Ill.
The EPA first filed charges against Kettleman Hills last July. But, on Thursday, the EPA said that it would seek to amend that complaint to add 33 additional violations of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act and 96 violations of the Toxics Substances Control Act.
The latest violations, the EPA said, include mixing incompatible wastes in surface ponds, putting liquid hazardous wastes in landfills after such practice was prohibited, failure for three years to follow a plan for chemically analyzing incoming waste, and failure to monitor ground water for toxic contamination. There were more than 1,500 instances in which the EPA said it believed that liquid wastes in holding ponds were in danger of overflowing.
Leaders of several of the environmental groups that charged widespread problems not only at Kettleman Hills but also at the state's other four hazardous waste dumps said the EPA action underscores their concerns.
But David B. Roe, senior attorney of the private Environmental Protection Fund, questioned why the EPA waited until Thursday to make its charges at a time when the environmental groups were releasing their report critical of government inaction. He said that the information leading to the charges had been in the EPA's hands since last year.
"These dumps are the maximum security prisons for our hazardous waste. They're supposed to be the toughest and the most tightly regulated and places that are supposed to be secure--and they all leak," Roe charged Thursday during a press conference in Monterey Park.
"In short," the report concluded, "a truck that leaves the loading dock carrying Class I hazardous wastes, willing to drive any distance in California . . . to put its cargo in a safe place, has nowhere to go."
Besides Kettleman Hills, the other dumps were Casmalia Resources near Santa Maria, and three Northern California hazardous waste dumps operated by the IT Corp. in Benicia and Martinez.
The report also contended that many of 19 other commercial landfills licensed to accept less-toxic wastes also are leaking and cited state records on three of the biggest dumps to bolster its point.
"There is a fundamental lack of integrity in the sites and an equally fundamental lack of integrity in the regulatory process that's supposed to govern those sites," Roe said.
The EPA has delegated responsibility to the state for enforcing the hazardous waste laws, but the federal agency retains oversight.
Called 'Old News'
A state Department of Health Services official called the report's allegations of leaks and legal violations "old news," although correct, and said the state is ordering correction of the deficiencies.
"However, the main thrust of the report, I think, is incorrect," said Richard Wilcoxon, head of the toxic substances control division. "It implies a major public health and environmental threat is posed right now, and that's not the case."
Wilcoxon said the dumps "are leaking in the sense that we've found wastes where we didn't expect to," but said he did not believe that the leaks have polluted drinking water supplies. In that sense, he said, the landfills are "safe."
Can Still Be Used
Hazardous wastes still can be dumped in those portions of the landfills where no leaks have been found, he said.