On Wednesday, operators of Chemical Waste Management, a toxic waste disposal facility near the San Joaquin Valley in California, agreed to pay $311,000 in fines for failing to report 72 hazardous materials spills over the last four years. Representatives from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control applauded the agreement, believing that the penalty was fitting […]
On Wednesday, operators of Chemical Waste Management, a toxic waste disposal facility near the San Joaquin Valley in California, agreed to pay $311,000 in fines for failing to report 72 hazardous materials spills over the last four years.
Representatives from the California Department of Toxic Substances Control applauded the agreement, believing that the penalty was fitting given the crimes. Brian Johnson, the department’s deputy director of enforcement, described the fines as “a substantial and aggressive penalty.”
The dump site is located near Kettleman City, Calif., a small farming community of 1,400 people located halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento.
Johnson tried to assuage fears of a health crisis, saying there are “no sign of health risks to the local community.” Most spills were one pint in volume or smaller.
Others representing environmental organizations are more skeptical, believing that the spills pose a serious, imminent health risk. “It’s absurd for the state to claim with a straight face that 72 spills of hazardous substances do not pose a health threat,” said Bradley Angel, a spokesman for the environmental group, Greenaction. “It didn’t even know the spills had gone on for four years until it stumbled upon the problem in a company log.”
State health investigators ruled out the ongoing spills as the reason 11 babies were born with cleft palates and other physical deformities in Kettleman City between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of the babies born with physical problems later died.
The Chemical Waste Management facility is the only location in California licensed to accept polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that are known carcinogens. Despite the ongoing concerns raised by community members and environmental groups, owners of the facility want to renew their 10-year operating license, which is set to expire in June.
The issue is a salient one given the history of serious chemical spills in California and across the United States.
Many Californians still remember the Cantara loop chemical spill in 1991, when a Southern Pacific railroad tank car derailed, spilling 19,000 gallons of a toxic soil fumigant known as “metam sodium” into the Upper Sacramento River.
No human fatalities were reported, but the spill killed every animal and living organism in a 38-mile stretch of the river. Fish, birds, salamanders and insects all succumbed to the toxic spill that has taken authorities years to properly clean up. Southern Pacific agreed to pay $38 million to help clean up the river which the California Department of Fish and Game claims has returned to its normal, healthy state more than 20 years after the disaster.
Unlike the public settlement and cleanup of the Cantara accident, many other chemical spills go unreported across the United States. According to a 2009 USA Today report, nearly half of all “serious” hazardous material, or “hazmat” spills on roads, airstrips, railroad tracks and bodies of water go unreported to the state and federal governments.
From 2006 through 2008, hazmat carriers failed to report 1,199 “serious” incidents, including larger spills, that would necessitate substantial evacuations and major road closures. The number of serious incidents that were reported over that period was 1,403.