Locked in a shed at an Oxnard landfill is a 55-gallon drum packed with materials so toxic that no hazardous-waste dump in the country will accept them.
After this weekend, the shed could contain more poison-laden drums. Within a year, there might be more than a dozen.
The possible accumulation of such virtually indisposable witch's brew is limited only by the amount of old pesticides and other potentially lethal household helpers that county residents have stored in their garages and under their sinks.
As Ventura County's second household hazardous-waste roundup nears, sanitation officials are playing a frustrating role of sorcerer's apprentice: the more stuff they gather, the more they are bedeviled by the problem of where to put it.
The most dangerous chemicals, mostly outdated herbicides and pesticides, have been banned from landfills by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency because they can break down into dioxin, a cancer-causing toxin. The chemicals cannot be burned because no hazardous-waste incinerators in the United States meet EPA requirements.
About 250 barrels of waste were gathered and taken to a hazardous-waste dump in the first roundup last March, but sanitation officials found they could not legally keep a barrel's worth of the most potent poisons without permission from the state.
"State Health Services told us we shouldn't have accepted this stuff," said Wayne Bruce, director of the Ventura Regional Sanitation District. "Why tell people they have to take the really bad stuff back home, keep it forever and if it leaks--good luck?"
Will Get Waivers
Bruce said state officials have assured the sanitation district it will get the required waivers for the most hazardous toxins from Saturday's roundup, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Waste Water Treatment Plant, 6001 S. Perkins Road, Oxnard.
But some experts say that concentrating such hazardous wastes poses a greater threat than allowing them to stay in homes.
"An accident in a garage might be confined to the garage," said Terry Gilday, of the hazardous waste division of the county's Department of Environmental Health. "An accident with a few barrels might affect a whole block."
Many collection programs send dioxin-containing products, such as bug killers, back home with consumers along with storage instructions.
"We were overwhelmed by the stuff that came in last time," said Joel Dispenza, who supervised the team of chemists that analyzed the hazardous wastes from the first county collection project last March. "It's a real education to see what people haul out of their garages."
Residents brought in an unopened 30-year-old crate of gopher bombs, gallons of cyanide, arsenic, DDT and four cardboard boxes that held a complete home laboratory.
The roundup also brought in other products that sound far more benign--brake fluid, pool conditioner, car wax, drain cleaner, furniture polish and household bleach. But these also are considered hazardous wastes and were analyzed by chemists and inspected by a bomb squad before being packed as carefully as cyanide or dioxin.
Products that seem like friendly household helpers on the grocery shelf can become hazards in garages or residential landfills for a variety of reasons.
Putting them into the trash where they might mix with incompatible compounds is a kind of chemical Russian roulette. If a pool conditioner happens to meet a cola-type drink, for instance, it can set off an explosive fire, Dispenza said. Also, refuse workers have been overcome, blinded and burned as a result of hazardous products thrown in household rubbish.
If the chemicals make it to the dump, violent chemical combinations are possible as the products decompose. Landfills for residential trash are not designed for hazardous materials and the resulting toxins could contaminate the ground water.
Still, it is not a good idea to leave these products languishing in homes.
"Anything that's aged is going to undergo some kind of change," Dispenza said. "Just think of the conditions in a garage. There are high and low temperatures, these things expand and contract, are exposed to dryness and humidity. You really have to worry about your volatile stuff."
However, until recent legislation made it possible for household-collection programs to get insurance and allowed consumers to transport these materials without an expensive permit, there was virtually no way for citizens to dispose of their hazardous waste legally and cheaply, said sanitation district director Bruce.
Yet even the most well-intended collection program may cost more it is worth, critics say.