The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency levied a $302,100 fine Tuesday against the operator of a toxic waste dump near a Central California farming community beset by unexplained birth defects, saying the company failed to properly manage carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Chemical Waste Management Inc., which owns the facility about 3½ miles southwest of Kettleman City, in July was given 60 days to clean up PCBs in soil adjacent to a building where hazardous wastes are treated for disposal.
EPA tests at the landfill showed PCB concentrations of 440 parts per million, nearly nine times the level allowed under the Toxic Substances Control Act. The site is the largest hazardous waste facility in the Western United States and the only one in the state allowed to handle PCBs under federal regulations.
EPA investigators also found that the company had failed to decontaminate PCB handling areas before continued use, and failed to label a container properly and display data required by federal law.
"Companies charged with safely disposing of society's most toxic materials need to faultlessly follow the protective laws established to secure both the public safety and public trust," Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's Pacific Southwest region administrator, said in a written statement. "Violations of federal environmental laws at the Kettleman hazardous waste facility are unacceptable."
Last year, the Kings County facility accepted about 4,000 tons of PCBs, which are used in electrical equipment, plasticizers and oils. Exposure to the compounds can cause cancer and adversely affect liver function and the nervous, immune and endocrine systems.
Although federal attention was drawn to the facility after Kettleman City residents complained of a rash of birth defects, no evidence was found to suggest that it had posed any danger to the impoverished community of 1,500 people just off Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco, EPA officials said.
Bob Henry, senior district manager of the 28-year-old landfill, said his company's cleanup exceeded levels typically required by law. Although the EPA's "regulations typically require cleanups achieve a 25-part-per-million standard, we elected to excavate to a significantly more stringent 1-ppm level — the level EPA considers suitable for high-occupancy areas such as residences, day-care centers, schools and other areas where children or adults might be exposed to soil," he said.