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Firm's Disposal of Radioactive Waste Probed

Health: State, Safety-Kleen officials disagree on whether OK was given to bury WWII material at dump near Bakersfield.

May 20, 1999|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

State health officials are investigating whether a hazardous waste company violated state law recently by burying 2,200 tons of radioactive debris left over from the World War II Manhattan Project in a dump west of Bakersfield.

Officials want to determine if Safety-Kleen Corp. of Columbia, S.C., exceeded the limits of its state permit to run a hazardous landfill in rural Buttonwillow by accepting broken concrete and wood from the demolition of a facility in upstate New York where uranium had been processed for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The material, considered by federal authorities to have a low level of radioactivity, was shipped by rail from Tonawanda, N.Y., to Los Angeles, and then was transferred to trucks for the trip to the Safety-Kleen dump. The process began last year and the last shipment of the debris was buried in the triple-lined landfill in mid-March.

Safety-Kleen was hired by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to dispose of the material. The company chose its dump at Buttonwillow because it has used that facility to dispose of low-level radioactive material left from the oil-drilling process.

"In an abundance of caution, before we accepted the material from the government, we put both California agencies [that deal with hazardous waste] on notice and we received no objection from either of them," said Tom Mullikin, Safety-Kleen's vice president for government and community relations.

Although both agencies--the California Department of Health Services and the Department of Toxic Substances Control--agree that Safety-Kleen contacted them, there is disagreement over what was said during a key telephone conversation between a company official and a high-ranking official with the radiological health branch of the Department of Health Services.

Safety-Kleen says it thought the official was giving the go-ahead, but the official, Gerard Wong, said the conversation was only informational and that he told the company representative that he did not have the authority to give approval.

Now, Wong's boss, Edgar Bailey, has ordered an investigation to determine whether Safety-Kleen broke state hazardous waste disposal laws and whether the 2,200 tons represent a health threat.

"Safety-Kleen has done business before in this state, and it should know that you don't just call up and say, 'Hey, we want to bring some stuff,' and get approval," said Bailey. "We want documents and we want proof and we do not give approval over the telephone."

At Bailey's direction, the state has demanded records from the state of New York attesting to the level of radioactivity. Inspectors have also gone to Buttonwillow to see how the material was buried and whether any possibility exists that radioactivity could leak out.

If Safety-Kleen is found to have exceeded its permit, it could face stiff fines.

Part of the dispute involves how to classify the debris. Safety-Kleen's permit says it can dispose of "naturally occurring" radioactive material, such as debris left from oil drilling operations that strike uranium deposits. It also sets a radioactivity limit of 2,000 picocuries per gram.

The waste from Tonawanda has been found to contain only 335 picocuries per gram, far beneath the acceptable limit, Safety-Kleen officials say.

Part of the dispute is whether it fits the definition of naturally occurring or whether it should be considered debris left from contamination and thus require a separate license before it can be dumped.

"There is no immediate threat to health," Bailey said. "The question would be whether it can leach into ground water. That's what we want to determine."

If necessary, Bailey said, the state may order drilling for core samples to be tested for radioactivity levels.

This is the second California controversy involving Safety-Kleen, the nation's largest handler of hazardous waste, in the past two months.

In late March, the company dropped plans to import 8,500 tons of mercury-laced toxic sludge from Cambodia for dumping at its landfill in the Imperial Valley. The action came as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency withdrew its tentative approval when environmentalists produced documents suggesting the toxicity level was higher than the company had said.

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