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California dumps toxic waste in states with weaker laws

In September 2020, workers in Brawley near the Mexico border began loading dump trucks with soil from the site of an old pesticide company. As an excavator carefully placed the Imperial County waste into the vehicles, a worker sprayed the pile with a hose, state records show. Another was on hand to watch for any sign of dust. The trucks then drove through a wash station that showered dirt off the wheels and collected the runoff water.

There was a reason for such caution. Shipping documents indicate the soil was contaminated with DDT, an insecticide the federal Environmental Protection Agency banned decades ago and that research has linked to premature births, cancer and environmental harms. The Brawley dirt was so toxic to California, state regulation labeled it a hazardous waste. That meant it would need to go to a disposal facility specially designed to handle dangerous material – a site with more precautions than a regular landfill to make sure the contaminants couldn’t leach into groundwater or pollute the air.

At least, that would have been the requirement if the waste stayed in California. But it didn’t.

Instead, the trucks – carrying nearly 1,500 tons of California hazardous waste – rumbled just over the Arizona border to the La Paz County Landfill, a municipal solid waste dump several miles from the Colorado River Indian Tribes’ reservation.

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

Some of this estimated 10 million tons has gone to specialized facilities, but California government agencies and businesses have also transported much of it over the border to states with weaker environmental regulations and dumped it at regular municipal waste landfills, a CalMatters investigation has found. These are cheaper alternatives with more limited protections and oversight than sites permitted to handle hazardous waste. A CalMatters analysis of state shipping records shows that two of the most heavily used by California are near Native American reservations – including a landfill with a spotty environmental record.

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

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

CalMatters spent four months examining how California handles its hazardous waste – analyzing state and federal databases with millions of shipping records, reviewing regulatory filings and archival documents, obtaining hundreds of pages of environmental inspection reports for waste disposal facilities in Arizona and Utah, and interviewing regulators, environmental advocates, engineers and waste industry sources.

CalMatters found no reports directly linking California waste to public health issues or pollution in surrounding communities. But environmental analyses at and around these out-of-state landfills are, at best, limited – largely relying on self-reported data from the waste companies. One Arizona landfill doesn’t conduct groundwater monitoring.

The waste leaving California includes asbestos, treated wood and auto shredder detritus. But the biggest source is contaminated soil – the product of California’s massive efforts to right decades of environmental harm and restore the land at the site of old factories, refineries and military installations. This is soil contaminated with heavy metals such as lead and nickel, petroleum hydrocarbons, and chemicals including DDT. The soil largely comes from cleanups 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 at a Utah landfill, according to data in a state tracking system. That includes hazardous waste from the Mission Bay redevelopment in San Francisco, military base cleanups in San Diego and transportation authority projects in San Bernardino County.

At least one business hopes there will be more. A company in Utah is currently trying to get a permit in that state to open a landfill right on the edge of the Great Salt Lake and planning to take – among other waste streams – contaminated soil. An economic analysis the company filed with Utah regulators says there’s a “unique market opportunity created by California law.”

And while California officials have discussed the issue for years, including a state initiative that looked at ways to treat more contaminated soil on-site, they’ve done little to address it. In fact, the state’s own hazardous waste watchdog – the Department of Toxic Substances Control – is one of the biggest out-of-state dumpers. That’s despite a 1991 pledge signed by then-Gov. 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 biggest cleanup effort – the area around the old Exide battery recycling plant in Los Angeles County – and disposed of it in western Arizona. Regulatory filings show most wound up at the South Yuma County Landfill, which sits just a few miles from the Cocopah Indian Tribe’s reservation and abuts the lush, green orchards of a company that grows organic dates. It’s a landfill that the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality labeled as posing an “imminent and substantial threat” in 2021 after an inspection noted windblown litter, large amounts of “disease vectors” (flies and birds), and groundwater with elevated levels of chromium – a metal that can harm people and the environment.

Officials with the Department of Toxic Substances Control said the decision to ship the waste out-of-state was driven by cost. Director Meredith Williams acknowledged her agency doesn’t monitor landfill conditions in other states. But she said the department is crafting a new hazardous waste management plan for the state – due in 2025 – that could “reflect the kinds of concerns that you’re hearing about.”

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

Some waste industry experts contend there’s little risk to people or the environment from the contaminated dirt. They say California regulations are too strict – labeling some waste as hazardous under state law even though it falls below the federal threshold to be considered hazardous. They say modern landfills here and out-of-state are more than equipped to handle the cleanup waste, particularly because contaminants such as heavy metals don’t migrate well through soil. They contend the regulations are therefore driving up disposal costs for businesses and the government, and also carry an unintended environmental cost – creating needless emissions from the thousands of trucks and train cars transporting the waste out of state each year.

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