California dumps toxic waste in states with weaker laws – CalMatters

In September 2020, workers in Brawley, near the Mexican border, began loading dump trucks with soil from the site of an old pesticide company. As a backhoe carefully loaded the Imperial County trash into the vehicles, a worker sprayed the pile with a hose, state records show. Another was on hand to look for signs of dust. The trucks then drove through a washing station that sprayed dirt off the wheels and collected the runoff water.

There was a reason for this caution. Shipping documents indicate the soil was contaminated with DDT, an insecticide that the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned decades ago and that research has linked to premature births, cancer and environmental damage. The Brawley dirt was so toxic to California that state regulations classified it as hazardous waste. That meant it had to be taken to a disposal facility specifically designed to handle hazardous material – a site with more precautions than a regular landfill to ensure the contaminants couldn’t leak into groundwater or pollute the air.

At least that would have been the default if the garbage had stayed in California. But it didn’t.

Instead, the trucks carrying nearly 1,500 tons of California hazardous waste rumbled straight across the Arizona border to the La Paz County Landfill, a municipal solid waste landfill located several miles from the Colorado River Indian Tribes Reservation.

The journey is a familiar one for the California poisons. Since 2010, nearly half of California’s hazardous waste has left the Golden State, according to figures released by the state last summer.

Some of that estimated 10 million tons went to specialized facilities, but California government agencies and companies also shipped much of it across the border to states with weaker environmental regulations and dumped it in regular municipal landfills, a CalMatters investigation found. These are cheaper alternatives with more limited protection and oversight than sites licensed to handle hazardous waste. A CalMatters analysis of state shipping records shows that two of California’s most heavily used are near Indian reservations — including a landfill with spotty environmental records.

While there is nothing illegal about the practice, critics claim it raises troubling questions for a state that likes to pat itself on the back as an environmental leader and a shining example of how to protect the planet.

“California shouldn’t have strict laws and then send that garbage out of the state. How’s that fair?” said Cynthia Babich, an environmental advocate who was on a state advisory committee looking at hazardous waste a few years ago. “You’re just shifting the load. It’s really not about the problem.”

CalMatters spent four months investigating how California manages its hazardous wastes – analyzing state and federal databases of millions of shipping records, reviewing regulatory and archival records, obtaining hundreds of pages of environmental inspection reports for Arizona and Utah waste facilities, and interviewing regulators, Environmentalists, engineers and waste industry sources.

CalMatters found no reports directly linking California waste to public health or pollution problems in surrounding communities. But environmental analysis at and around these out-of-state dumps is limited at best — relying largely on self-reported data from the waste companies. A landfill in Arizona does not monitor groundwater.

The waste leaving California includes asbestos, treated wood and auto shredder waste. But the biggest source is contaminated soil — the result of California’s massive effort to rectify decades of environmental damage and restore land where old factories, refineries and military facilities have been sited. This is soil contaminated with heavy metals like lead and nickel, petroleum hydrocarbons, and chemicals including DDT. Most of the soil comes from cleanup operations that government agencies either oversee or directly manage.

In the past five years, California has disposed of more than 660,000 tons of contaminated soil in Arizona landfills and nearly a million tons in a Utah landfill, according to data from a state tracking system. These include hazardous waste from San Francisco’s Mission Bay cleanup, San Diego military base cleanups and San Bernardino County Transportation Department projects.

At least one company is hoping that there will be more. A Utah company is trying to get a permit to open a landfill in that state right on the edge of the Great Salt Lake, and plans to ingest contaminated soil among other waste streams. An economic analysis the company has filed with regulators in Utah says there is a “unique market opportunity being created by California law.”

And while California officials have debated the issue for years, including a state initiative that sought ways to treat more heavily contaminated soil on-site, they have done little to address it. In fact, the state’s hazardous waste enforcement agency — the Department of Toxic Substances Control — is one of the largest dumpers outside of the state. And that despite a promise signed by the government at the time in 1991. Pete Wilson to keep California waste in California.

Since 2018, the department has removed more than 105,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site of the state’s largest cleanup — the area around the old Exide battery recycling facility in Los Angeles County — and disposed of in western Arizona. Regulatory filings show most ended up in a South Yuma County landfill, just a few miles from the Cocopah Indian tribe’s reservation and adjacent to the lush, green orchards of a company that grows organic dates. It’s a landfill that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality classified as an “imminent and significant threat” in 2021 after an inspection found windblown debris, large quantities of “disease vectors” (flies and birds), and groundwater containing increased levels of chromium were found – a metal that can harm people and the environment.

Department of Toxic Substances Control officials said the decision to ship the waste abroad was cost-driven. Director Meredith Williams acknowledged that her agency does not monitor landfill conditions in other states. But she said the department is preparing a new hazardous waste management plan for the state – due in 2025 – that “might reflect the kind of concerns you’re hearing about.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Some waste industry experts claim that the contaminated dirt poses little risk to people and the environment. They say California regulations are too strict — some waste is labeled as hazardous under state law even though it falls below the state threshold to be considered hazardous. They say modern landfills here and outside the state are more than equipped to handle the cleaning waste, particularly because pollutants like heavy metals don’t travel well through the soil. They claim that the regulations therefore drive up disposal costs for businesses and the government, and also create an unintended environmental cost — they create unnecessary emissions from the thousands of trucks and railcars that haul the waste out of the state each year.

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