By Vic Bedoian
In a decision that’s sure to be controversial, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) issued a draft permit to the Chemical Waste Management Company to expand its hazardous waste landfill near the Central Valley town of Kettleman City. At the same time the department announced an effort to reduce the amount of toxic waste generated in the state. The Kettleman Hills facility is the largest toxic waste dump in the western states and one of three in California. Over the past two years alone, the plant has been repeatedly fined by state and federal regulators for permit violations and containment problems.
The DTSC took five years before deciding to allow the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste dump to expand near a community already suffering from numerous environmental assaults from bad air to undrinkable water. The landfill will be able to add five million tons of toxic waste to the 10 million tons already there.
Brian Johnson of the DTSC in announcing the decision on July 2 said stricter criteria will be imposed including enhanced air and water monitoring, improved containment measures, reduced emissions from trucks hauling waste and more community involvement. Johnson admitted it was a gut-wrenching decision in light of the long history of environmental safety violations by ChemWaste and opposition by many Kettleman City residents, “We recognize that Kettleman City is one of the most impacted communities in the state.”
Kettleman City is indeed affected by a noxious combination of air pollution from proximity to two state highways, pesticide spraying from surrounding farmland and groundwater laced with benzene and other harmful chemicals. The number of children born with birth defects is now up to 13 in the past five years. Although a state-sponsored environmental study failed to directly link the ChemWaste plant to those birth defects, many residents are suspicious of the toxic waste dump in their backyard.
Bradley Angel of the San Francisco–based group Greenaction has been in the middle of the Kettleman City fight for more than 20 years. He says the decision is unfortunate and only escalates the war between environmental justice advocates and the state’s environmental agencies. “I think the message it sends is that, number one, racism is alive and well, [and] that, number two, the rule of law does not matter. It sends the message that you can have a hundred violations, you can have violations going back for years, you can violate all the permits you get, and still get another permit.”
The DTSC also announced an initiative to begin reducing the amount of hazardous waste generated by California’s industries. DTSC Director Deborah Raphael said the goal is to use innovative technologies to consolidate and recycle toxic waste more efficiently to cut the amount of toxic waste in half by 2025.
“This permit decision focuses the attention of Californians on this issue like no other time in our history, and it compels us to ask a very important question, can we eliminate the need for future expansions,” says Raphael. “Reducing the generation of hazardous waste is an issue of equity, it’s an issue of fairness and we need to start that conversation now.”
Angel called the proposal a whitewash and an idea that is too little and too late for residents of the three California towns near hazardous waste dumps, “What’s going to happen to the residents of Kettleman City and Buttonwillow and Westmoreland until then? They will continue to get dumped on and poisoned and polluted by the toxic waste and the trucks carrying the toxic waste to and from their community.”
In a separate but related development, the California Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is creating an environmental justice working group to improve regulatory compliance in low-income communities that are most affected by pollution. Cal EPA spokesperson Alex Barnum explained that the working group will help “ensure that those communities disproportionately affected by pollution will be given particular attention.” While stronger compliance would be welcomed in those communities, it’s also an admission that regulatory compliance has been lacking all along.
Given the decision to expand the Kettleman Hills landfill, Angel remains skeptical of the state’s commitment to environmental justice, “How can a state agency that ignores science, that ignores racial discrimination and police intimidation and the terrible health situation in Kettleman City, and issues a permit to dump enormous amounts of hazardous waste into their community then claim they’re going to have an environmental justice work group. It’s ridiculous.”
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.