Casmalia: The word has become synonymous with "controversy" since the last remaining toxic landfill in Los Angeles County--the BKK dump in West Covina--was closed a year ago.
BKK was shut down after ground-water contamination was found under the dump and explosive levels of methane gas were discovered in nearby homes. When BKK was closed, many of the county's most hazardous wastes were trucked to Casmalia in Santa Barbara County.
Now a new crisis could be brewing. The state Department of Health Services on Nov. 6 issued an order for operators of the Casmalia dump to stop accepting all liquid hazardous waste by Dec. 21 for at least four to six months, until corrective actions are taken to stem a possible threat to public health. Noxious fumes from the dump have been blamed for headaches and eye, nose and throat irritations of local residents and school children.
Casmalia and Kettleman Hills in the western San Joaquin Valley are the only hazardous-waste dumps serving Southern California that are designated Class 1, and Kettleman Hills was charged by the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency with violating federal environmental safety laws.
(The owner, Chemical Waste Management, agreed last week to pay $4 million in penalties and corrective work for violating these laws.)
Class 1 dumps are those that can accept the broadest range of toxic chemicals. So without Casmalia, even on a temporary basis, and with limited capacity at Kettleman Hills, where will many of these dangerous wastes go?
Angelo Bellomo, chief of the Southern California section of the Toxic Substances Control Division of the state Department of Health Services, said, "As our capacity continues to decrease in this state, it becomes much more difficult to find existing lawful options."
Yet, today the dangers of hazardous wastes are understood, and lawful options are more necessary than ever. (Radioactive waste, as from nuclear power plants and medicines, are regulated by separate laws and in terms of volume are "almost insignificant in relation to hazardous waste," Kieran Bergin, a Los Angeles County Sanitation Districts engineer, explained.)
"Ten years ago, the drive was on production," Frank D. Goss of Building System Evaluation Inc. of Sierra Madre, said. "If there was asbestos or other toxic waste on a site, many (generators) just dug a hole and buried it."
'No Good Regulations'
Nobody realized then how dangerous asbestos and other chemicals, like PCB (polychlorinated biphenyl), were. "In the '70s, PCB was thought of like motor oil," Goss explained. "There were no good regulations on how to handle it. It looks innocent enough--just like vegetable oil, and it was used in various ways."
In the early '70s, it was in a concoction spread on 10 miles of unpaved streets in Times Beach, Mo., to keep down the summer dust. Nobody knew then that the goo on the streets could cause sickness and death. Now Times Beach is a ghost town.
Ten years ago, few people knew that buried chemicals could seep through the soil and into the aquifer, contaminating ground water. The EPA conducted a study a few months ago of 48,000 community public water systems supplied by ground water and found that 20% contained detectable levels of man-made organic chemicals, although a much smaller percentage had contamination levels above those considered safe for consumption.
Water contamination is of special concern in Southern California because, as Bergin observed, "We live in a desert, and if we foul up our water, people will leave, then industry will leave. Economic effects on the region could be devastating."
This might sound melodramatic, but Bergin maintains that it could happen as lawful options for disposal of hazardous wastes are removed or made more difficult.
"History teaches us that if industry doesn't have a legal way to dispose of these wastes, industry will do it illegally," he said.
Massive clean-up jobs involving past toxic-waste mismanagement dot the country, and there are still cases of unethical contractors who illegally bury it or get rid of it in some other nefarious way. "There was a story in the news the other day about a guy who unloaded 600 bags of hazardous waste off a freeway in Oakland," Goss said.
The potential harm to ground water, air and even children who might happen to find such bags or barrels isn't hard to imagine.
"I know a way out of hell," Bellomo likes to say about his ideas for managing toxic waste. "The way out of hell is the application of technology.
"I'm talking about going from dumping waste in the ground to treating it, and only putting treatment residues and untreatable waste in a residual repository, a place for long-term storage," he explained. "So if we could use the waste in the future, we could extract it from the ground, which would be lined. Waste would be placed in cells and kept dry and away from the rain.