Editorial: California needs to clean up its own messes, not ship it to other states

Published: Tuesday, May. 27, 2014 - 12:00 am

California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control has acknowledged a basic lesson our parents teach: We need to clean up our own messes.

After a half-dozen years of study, hearings and hand-wringing, the department last week finally approved Chemical Waste Management’s request to expand its 1,600-acre hazardous-waste landfill in a remote part of Kings County known as Kettleman Hills, on the west side of Interstate 5. It is overdue.

Without a doubt, some nonprofit organization will appeal. That is their right. But authorities weighing the protests should recognize the effort that went into the decision to grant the permit and the consequence of overturning it.

During the years when the permit application was pending, Waste Management dramatically reduced the amount of waste it would accept. But California continued to produce more than its share of hazardous waste, 1.7 million tons each year, and sent it by rail to other states, where rules are more lax.

Consider the hypocrisy: California authorities couldn’t bring themselves to allow for the disposal of the mess created by Californians. But California was perfectly happy to agree to ship toxix material to Nevada, Utah, Idaho and other states, which have less stringent laws governing what constitutes hazardous waste and how it must be disposed of.

The Kettleman Hills facility accepts almost all solid, semi-solid, and liquid hazardous waste, including asbestos, concrete, fuel, lead, heavy metals and solvents, and contaminated soil from brownfields. It does not take biological agents, infectious wastes, radioactive material or explosives.

Concerns about the landfill have come from a small environmentalist group in San Francisco and some residents of Kettleman City, on the east side of Interstate 5.

Babies in Kettleman City have been born with birth defects, and individuals have developed cancer. But investigations by state and federal scientists and public health experts have failed to find any connection to the landfill.

Kettleman City relies on wells that pump water containing arsenic, a carcinogen that has been linked to birth defects. Well water also contains benzene, a toxic byproduct of the petroleum beneath Kettleman City.

Waste Management has offered to help pay for a new water treatment plant, if it receives the permit and can expand its operation. Any suit could delay construction of a filtration facility.

The permit, approved under the leadership of Debbie Raphael, the outgoing director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, requires that Waste Management reduce diesel trucks’ air emissions by prohibiting the use of trucks built before 2007. There also will be increased air sampling, an improved containment system to control spills and regular meetings with Kettleman City residents.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control, meanwhile, has embarked on an ambitious effort to reduce by half the amount of toxic waste generated by 2015.

The concept is simple: The best way to avoid having to clean up a mess is to not make a mess in the first place, the sort of lesson any good parent would teach.

Read more articles by the Editorial Board

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