Federal authorities have given a toxic waste dump near a Central California farming community plagued by birth defects 60 days to clean up soil contaminated with carcinogenic PCBs, or lose its permit to receive the dangerous substance trucked in each year from throughout Southern California.
The facility's owner, Waste Management Inc., received the order late Thursday from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in connection with PCBs discovered in soil beneath a concrete pad adjacent to a building where extremely hazardous wastes are treated for disposal.
Preliminary results released Friday showed PCB at concentrations of up to 440 parts per million. Spills and other uncontrolled discharges of PCBs at concentrations of 50 parts per million on concrete or soil constitute a violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act, EPA officials said.
The landfill is the largest hazardous waste facility in the western United States and the only one in the state permitted to accept polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Employees of Chemical Waste Management Inc — the managing company of the facility — discovered the contamination while they were cleaning up spilled PCBs related to an earlier EPA warning of noncompliance with hazardous waste regulations at the same location about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Kettleman City, an impoverished Kings County community of about 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking residents.
Many residents suspect the landfill is causing serious birth defects, including heart problems and cleft palates and lips, and adding toxins to the community that for decades has already been surrounded by agricultural sewage, diesel exhaust, pesticides and elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water.
In an interview, Chemical Waste spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews said the latest EPA action "was unnecessary."
"We were unpleasantly surprised to get hit with a second violation at the same place because we were already in the process of cleaning it up," she said. "In other words, while cleaning it up we found more PCBs there and reported it."
Last year, the landfill took in 400,000 tons of hazardous waste. PCBs made up roughly 1% of that amount.
State health and environmental safety officials are conducting ongoing investigations into possible causes of the birth defects. In recent weeks, they have launched studies of the medical histories of a half dozen impacted families and tests of air, water and soil throughout the region.
The investigations were prompted by local health surveys showing that at least five of the 20 babies born in the community between September 2007 and November 2009 suffered serious birth defects. Three of them died.
Political tensions have been on the rise in the community since the company in 2009 requested a county permit to expand its landfill operations. About 499 acres of the facility's 1,600-acre parcel is currently used for the management of hazardous waste.
California's two U.S. senators have called for a moratorium on plans to expand pending the completion of the investigations into the birth defects.
Sam Delson, spokesman for the California Environmental Protection Agency, said Friday, "No decision will be made on the request for a permit for landfill expansion until our environmental exposure investigation is completed at the end of this year."
Waste Management officials said they welcome the scrutiny. The landfill has operated for 28 years and is monitored, regulated and controlled by nearly a dozen state and federal agencies.
In those 28 years, the company has been fined more than $2 million for infractions, including mishandling of PCBs, failing to properly analyze incoming wastes, storm water and leachate for PCBs, and failing to properly calibrate equipment.
"The fact that Chem Waste has had years of problems with the improper disposal, handling and monitoring of PCBs is a major concern," said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, "due to its extreme toxicity and the birth defect crises plaguing Kettleman City's residents."