State approves expansion of controversial Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill

The Fresno BeeMay 21, 2014 

The controversial Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City is authorized to expand by 5 million cubic yards, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said Wednesday.

The decision would let the landfill remain open at least eight more years, officials said.

Under its current permit, the Kettleman Hills landfill was allowed to grow to 10.7 million cubic yards, which have mostly been used.

The green light from regulators becomes effective after a one-month appeals period that ends June 23, or after any appeals have been addressed, DTSC Director Debbie Raphael said.

The largest toxic waste landfill in the West has been the target of environmental justice advocates who say its proximity to Kettleman City, a poor farmworker community of 1,500 about 3 miles away, puts an unfair burden on the community.

Kettleman City was the site of a rash of birth defects beginning in 2008, but an investigation by the Department of Public Health ruled out a connection between them and the landfill.

Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, founder of People for Clean Air and Water, said the state agency's decision was expected but still disappointing.

"There's a real sense of outrage," she said. "I'm absolutely disgusted that Debbie Raphael, who is one week away from leaving, made the decision, is going on with her merry life, and the community has to live with the ramifications. It smacks of non-accountability."

Raphael's last day as director is May 30.

Raphael "strongly supports the decision" but did not make it, DTSC spokeswoman Tamma Adamek said. The department made the decision based on science and data, and new required safeguards at the landfill will remain in effect after Raphael is gone, she said.

Mares-Alatorre said People for Clean Air and Water and perhaps other environmental groups will file an appeal.

The expansion violates federal and state environmental and civil rights laws, according to written comments submitted by the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment for an environmental impact report.

"We're willing to take this fight all the way," and litigation is possible, Mares-Alatorre said.

The landfill expects to accept new shipments in about a year.

New areas must be constructed to accept the waste, said Lily Quiroa, community affairs manager for Waste Management, which owns Chemical Waste Management.

At full operation, Kettleman Hills employs about 90 people, she said. Currently, it has fewer than 30 employees and is taking few shipments, she said.

The expansion was approved because the state is producing 1.7 million tons of contaminated waste yearly and needs landfill space, Raphael said.

"We export 70% out of state," she said.

Only two landfills in California are accepting hazardous waste -- Kettleman Hills and Buttonwillow. A third in Westmorland in Imperial County is no longer accepting deliveries.

Several state agencies have examined the potential for Chem Waste's landfill to harm Kettleman City residents and determined that "this facility does not pose a risk to the community," Raphael said. "No one found any evidence of hazardous waste leaking from Kettleman Hills via air, water or land."

The wind blows south from the landfill, not toward Kettleman City, and underground water beneath the landfill does not flow toward the town, she said.

The department held discussions with residents to answer concerns and will require more safeguards at the landfill, Raphael said.

Residents expressed concern about an increase in truck traffic at the landfill that could increase air pollution. At full operation, about 400 trucks a day will arrive at the landfill. Trucks will be required to meet 2017 emission standards, she said.

Other requirements include more inspections by state and federal officials, more testing and reporting by the landfill, and improved controls to prevent spills, she said.

The state is also working on new regulations to cut shipments to hazardous waste landfills in half by 2025 so the landfill can last longer. If the regulations are adopted, the Kettleman Hills landfill could accept waste for up to 16 years.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6104, or @fb_LewGriswold on Twitter.

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