In the combed and rolling hills west of Kettleman City, Waste Management… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
A toxic waste dump near a San Joaquin Valley community plagued by birth defects has agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials at the facility, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday.
The penalties were part of a consent decree that capped an 18-month investigation by the EPA and the California Department of Toxic Substances Control into the Chemical Waste Management landfill about 3 1/2 miles southwest of Kettleman City, a community of 1,500 mostly low-income Latino farmworkers.
Company records revealed at least 18 instances over the last six years in which toxic waste had to be excavated from the landfill after it was learned that the laboratory had mistakenly concluded the material met treatment standards, EPA officials said.
Photos: A cluster of health problems
Terms of the settlement require the facility to use an outside laboratory for at least two years and invest in improved records management systems, laboratory equipment and leachate monitoring programs, the EPA said.
"Significant shortcomings at Chemical Waste Management's lab compromised the company's ability to accurately analyze the toxic waste to be disposed of in their landfill," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. "These were serious compliance issues and they have now been resolved. But that doesn't mean we are going to go away. We will remain vigilant and continue checking to make sure that the facility operates in full compliance."
The action came two years after activists petitioned state and federal health agencies to investigate whether the 29-year-old landfill owned by Houston-based Waste Management Inc. might be linked to severe birth defects including heart problems and cleft palates in Kettleman City. No such evidence was found by state investigators.
Ongoing environmental exposure investigations by state environmental authorities are focusing on possible harmful effects caused by the use of household bug sprays in Kettleman City, which is surrounded by farmland.
Many residents remain skeptical of such studies. Maricela Mares Alatorre, a Kettleman City activist and mother of two, said, "Bug spray may be only compounding problems caused by all the other dangerous chemicals we are faced with on a daily basis: arsenic and benzene in water supplies, diesel fumes from big rigs, crop spraying and living in the home of the largest toxic dump in the West."
Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a San Francisco-based group that has organized the community, is urging state health authorities to deny an application from the company to expand the facility, the largest of its type west of the Mississippi River and the only one in the state authorized to accept carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
Each year, the Kings County facility receives from the Los Angeles area about 400 tons of liquid PCBs, which are found in electrical transformers, circuit breakers, voltage regulators, plasticizers and additives to lubricating and cutting oils.
A decision on whether to grant the permit is expected later this year.
Waste Management spokeswoman Jennifer Andrews said in a statement, "Although we disagree with EPA's findings, the consent agreement will allow us to move forward with a common understanding of acceptable hazardous waste management practices and will allow us to close out several complex regulatory issues."
Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, welcomed the fines and upgrades, but added, "A company with this many serious violations should not be entitled to renew its permits. The party should be over for this toxic waste dump. How many chances will they get when they are dealing with the deadliest chemicals known to science next door to a community with serious health problems?"
Photos: A cluster of health problems