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California and the West

Firm Drops Plan to Import Toxic Waste From Cambodia


WESTMORLAND — To the joy of residents in this tiny Imperial Valley community, the nation's largest handler of hazardous waste said Wednesday it is dropping plans to import 8,500 tons of mercury-laced toxic sludge from Cambodia for dumping at the company's landfill here.

Officials of Safety-Kleen Corp. said the decision was prompted by concern that the sludge may be more toxic than originally thought.

The about-face came just hours after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency rescinded its tentative approval of Safety-Kleen's plan to ship the waste in sealed barrels to the Port of Los Angeles and then have it trucked to the landfill for treatment and burial.

"That's fabulous," said Rosie Nava-Bermudez, an Imperial County health worker who had been organizing a protest over the dumping plan. "I feel we can breathe again. Imperial Valley is not a place to dump on."

EPA officials made the decision after receiving documents from environmentalists suggesting that the sludge was more dangerous than Safety-Kleen had said in its application.

The agency said Safety-Kleen could appeal its decision, but it would have to provide proof that the material, an industrial byproduct from Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Corp., falls below the U.S. standards for importing material with mercury.

"This is a serious defeat for polluters like Formosa Plastics and companies like Safety Kleen that just look at small communities as places they can dump on and make a profit," said Bradley Angel, executive director of San Francisco-based Greenaction, one of the environmental groups that brought the toxicity information to the EPA.

Bill Ross, director of regulatory affairs for Safety-Kleen's western division, said the company decided to drop the Westmorland plan after it was unable to reconcile four tests done on the toxic waste, all showing different levels of hazard.

An international furor erupted in December when the sludge was shipped from Taiwan and dumped illegally in an open field outside a Cambodian resort city, causing a near riot among panicky villagers. The army restored order and customs officials were later charged with accepting bribes.

On Wednesday, Ross had just returned from three weeks in Cambodia where he supervised the packing and loading of the sludge into barrels. Formosa Plastics will now take the material back to Taiwan for disposal, he said.

"I feel elated that the material is finally out of Cambodia," he said. "That country has enough problems, with land mines and AIDS and on and on. We thought we could bring the material here safely and legally but none of the data agreed, so we decided it was best to end things."

If Safety-Kleen, which is based in Columbia, S.C., had successfully appealed EPA's revocation of its approval, the company still would have faced regulatory hurdles from several state agencies.

The decision came as Nava-Bermudez was rallying protesters to appear at Wednesday night's City Council meeting in Westmorland (population 1,700). The farming community was festooned with signs saying "Environmental Justice for All" and "Imperial Valley Says No To Toxic Waste."

Safety-Kleen has operated a 640-acre landfill here for two decades, one of three landfills in California certified as capable of handling toxic materials.

The environmentalists' trump card proved to be an analysis done by the environmental protection agency in Hong Kong that showed that the toxicity exceeded U.S. standards for importation.

Angel said the incident shows companies "that we will be watching them and that even a small community can fight back."

Ross said it was more of an international case of not-in-my-backyard. "We still think the concept of cleaning up wastes from underdeveloped countries is a good one," he said.

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