Toxic dump near Kettleman City improperly disposed of chemicals, EPA says

FRESNO — A federal investigation found that a major hazardous waste facility at the center of a birth defects controversy improperly disposed of a chemical known to cause cancer and reproductive problems.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency sent a notice of violation Thursday to the Chemical Waste Management landfill involving federal laws on the disposal of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a now-banned transformer fluid.

The agency also acknowledged that investigators had neglected to follow up on a host of 2005 violations at the landfill, including the improper treatment and storage of hazardous waste.

The company has been fined in past years for not properly monitoring seepage under the landfill holding PCBs.

Nearby residents have blamed the facility — the largest hazardous waste facility in the West — for at least 11 birth defects since 2007.

Company officials have said there’s no evidence linking the dump to the birth defects. They did not immediately return calls Thursday seeking comment.

The findings announced by EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld outraged activists fighting a plan to expand the site.

“The picture is becoming clearer that claims things are just fine are false,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of the environmental justice group Greenaction.

Blumenfeld’s announcement was part of promise he made to residents of the impoverished Central Valley farming community of Kettleman City that he would investigate the situation.

Blumenfeld, who took over the western division’s top post in January, told residents in February he would investigate whether the EPA had dropped the ball on past complaints.

“The good news is the problems are isolated; the bad news is we should have been proceeding with these compliance issues a number of years ago rather than now,” he said.

The investigation by the EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance completed in 2007 found that equipment for testing PCBs wasn’t calibrated properly; PCB leachate was improperly diluted before storage; and the company illegally placed several toxic chemicals in evaporation ponds — including the solvents acetone and toluene — that potentially could be emitted into the environment.

“If the citizens of Kettleman City had done this they’d be locked up in San Quentin,” Angel said.Blumenfeld said the EPA will continue to investigate to determine the scope of the company’s waste disposal problems, which he said were confined to property inside the landfill.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, who chairs the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, released a statement saying she was “outraged that there was no action taken when these violations were first discovered.

“It is unconscionable that EPA dropped the ball on this, when we know that PCBs have been linked to cancer and other serious health effects,” said the California Democrat.

State investigators are taking samples of air, soil and water around Kettleman City, 3.5 miles to the east of the landfill, in an effort to determine the source of the cleft palates and other problems seen in newborns.

The expansion permit was approved earlier this year by the Kings County Board of Supervisors despite opposition from hundreds of residents of this farm town of 1,500 people. The residents and Greenaction have accused officials of ignoring complaints from residents who lack political clout.

The expansion permit is on hold while state health and state and federal environmental investigations continue.