The best of EcoWatch, right in your inbox. Sign up for our email newsletter!
By Matt Smith
Lot by lot, backhoes and dump trucks are scraping and hauling away yards on the north side of Birmingham to remove soil laced with heavy metals and other industrial wastes—the legacy of this city's years as a steelmaking power.
Federal prosecutors say that effort also uncovered something else: a scheme to save polluters millions by putting the neighborhood's representative in Montgomery on their payroll.
A smoggy view from the George Washington Bridge in 1973. Chester Higgins / US National Archives
By Bob Sussman
The system took shape in the 1960s and 70s as the public and politicians sounded the alarm about the environmental legacy of decades of uncontrolled industrialization. Faced with the threat of unsafe and polluted air, contaminated rivers and streams, hazardous chemicals in homes and products and toxic waste sites, Congress enacted an ambitious set of laws calling for far-reaching protections of public health and the environment. Support for these laws came from across the political spectrum and from presidents as diverse as Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
A company with a history of failing to report hazardous material spills is set to expand its Central Valley, CA, toxic waste dump, to the dismay of low-income communities already plagued with concern over proximity to the operation.
A draft permit for the expansion of Chemical Waste Management’s Kettleman City toxic waste dump would expand the site by 50 percent, or 5 million cubic yards, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The toxic dump, considered the largest west of the Mississippi River, has been the subject of debate among local residents after it was fined in March for failing to report more than 70 toxic waste spills to California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC)—a charge the company claims is irrelevant to its quest for expansion.
The toxic site borders what Greenaction describes as a low-income, predominantly Spanish-speaking community with a population of 1,500. According to the organization, those who have attempted to speak up against the expansion have been met by police-led intimidation at public hearings held only in English.
“The community is impacted by multiple sources of pollution, and threatened by new proposed polluting industries,” the organization said in a press release. “Existing pollution includes the Chemical Waste Management landfill, pesticides, drinking water contaminated with benzene and arsenic, massive diesel truck traffic on Highway 41 and Interstate 5, toxic contamination from oilfield operations, and a former PG&E site.”
At the same time Central Valley that residents are fighting the proposed Chemical Waste Management expansion, the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon, CA—nearly three hours north—is poised to reopen. The Exide plant, which was closed for alleged arsenic emissions and soil contamination, is also located in a predominantly low-income area.
“We’re considered a lot more disposable than people in communities like Napa or Beverly Hills,” Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who lives near the Kettleman City plant, told the LA Times.
Chemical Waste Management Expansion
In March, Chemical Waste Management was ordered to pay more than $300,000 in fines after it was discovered that it did not report 72 hazardous material spills over four years, according to the California DTSC.
The department said the spills occurred near a loading area and sampling facility. The spills included herbicides, lead-contaminated soil and other chemicals, according to a press release. Area residents point to these violations as potential causes of illness and fetal deformities.
“In 2007 and 2008, Greenaction and community groups discovered a large number of birth defects and infant deaths in Kettleman City,” Greenaction said in a press release. “Unfortunately, the birth defect and infant death problem continues, along with many miscarriages and several cases of childhood cancer.”
Under California law, the company was supposed to verbally notify the department of the spill within 24 hours of the incident. Written notice is supposed to be given within 10 days.
Chemical Waste Management failed to do this 72 times. The company claims it cleaned up all spills and considered them to be too small to report.
The fine was imposed after a negotiating process between the DTSC and the company. According to the LA Times, the plant is the only one of its kind in California allowed to store polychlorinated biphenyls, otherwise known as PCBs, a known carcinogen.
“Our job is to ensure that facilities operate in compliance with the hazardous waste control laws and to hold them accountable when they don’t,” Brian Johnson, the department’s deputy director of enforcement, said in a press release. “This is a significant fine that underscores our commitment and sends a clear message to communities that DTSC will protect violations of the hazardous waste control laws.”
Yet local residents see the $300,000 fine as little more than a slap on the wrist for the company, which is now poised to expand its facility by 50 percent.
“It’s an insult to the rule of law that will send a message to polluters that … it doesn’t matter how many times you violate the law, the state will protect you and not protect the people in communities,” Greenation Executive Director Bradley Angel told the LA Times.
The draft permit is expected to be approved in September.
Yet before that happens, area residents are making their voice known, urging the Environmental Protection Agency and the DTSC to deny the permit completely, citing “chronic violations by the company, the ongoing health crisis including birth defects, miscarriages and childhood cancer, and the racial discrimination in the permit process including denying Spanish-speakers equal opportunity to participate in the process and the use of police dogs and police intimidation in the public hearings.”
Meanwhile, in Vernon, Californians are fighting a similar battle.
In April, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control suspended the permit for the Exide Technologies battery recycling plant, which recycles roughly 40,000 batteries each day. The state agency cited faulty pipelines and soil and groundwater contamination.
“A recent report submitted to the department by Exide demonstrate that the facility is operating its underground storm sewer pipeline in violation of hazardous waste requirements and are causing releases to the environment,” the order for temporary suspension states. “A separate report submitted to the South Coast Air Quality Management District by Exide demonstrates that emissions from the facility operations pose a significant risk to the surrounding community.”
According to the DTSC, a report on March 5 indicated degraded and compromised underground pipelines, which were the sources of hazardous metals released into the soil and groundwater near the facility. According to the report, groundwater in the area was contaminated at a level exceeding regulations. In addition, the report indicates the facility’s furnace was emitting arsenic pollutants, impacting more than 100,000 people.
“The predominant contributor to both chronic and acute cancer risk and noncancer hazard is arsenic emissions from the facility, with the primary human organs that are harmed are the cardiovascular system, central nervous system, developmental system, respiratory system and skin,” the report states.
The suspension of the plant’s permit was seen as somewhat of a victory for those living in the area—until it was overridden.
Exide challenged the DTSC order, filing for an appeal hearing. Yet after it was determined that the process was not as efficient as the company would like, Exide took its matter to court, filing for bankruptcy protection.
According to California Public Radio, Judge Luis Lavin determined that Exide would be “irreparably harmed” by the slow hearing process, granting the company the right to once again begin operations. Lavin claimed that doing so would not put the public at risk. Clearly, this was a controversial move.
Lavin claims that Exide had proven its ability to reduce arsenic emission levels, doing so by 97 percent before the plant was set to close, according to the LA Times. Taking the issue a step in a different direction, the judge accused the DTSC of filing the suspension based on knee-jerk reactions.
“The department’s avalanche of conclusions, speculation and innuendo are not a substitute for evidence,” the judge wrote in his ruling, according to the Times.
The company will still be subject to an administrative hearing, tentatively scheduled for September—the same time residents of Central Valley will discover whether they need to brace for the expansion of a toxic dump in their own backyards.
Visit EcoWatch’s HEALTH page for more related news on this topic.
For decades all across America, coal-fired power plants have dumped tons of toxic pollutants into public rivers, lakes, streams and coastal waters. On a toxicity-weighted scale, discharges from coal-fired power plants account for over one half of all toxic water pollution in the U.S. The pollutants dumped by coal-fired power plants are among the most toxic heavy metals listed by the U.S. Department of Health’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.
The Sutton coal-fired power plant in Wilmington, NC, is a prime example of a coal-fired power plant with a long history of groundwater pollution, surface water contamination and government failure to prevent harm to public waterways.
Underneath the sand and pine trees that surround Sutton, an unseen plume of toxic heavy metals has migrated out of the unlined ash ponds into groundwater. Monitoring well data from the site show the ash ponds have caused numerous pollutants to exceed their respective standards, including:
- Arsenic at 34 times the standard
- Manganese at 47 times the standard
- Iron at 27 times the standard
- Boron at four times the standard
- Sulfate more than three times the standard
- Thallium at three times the standard
- Selenium at more than twice the standard
- Total Dissolved Solids at twice the standard
Unbeknownst to most of the people living in Wilmington, NC, this hidden toxic witches brew of contamination is flowing towards public water supplies that provide drinking water to the community of Flemington. These wells are operated by the Cape Fear Public Utility Authority and are located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds.
Public water supply wells located less than a mile from the leaking Sutton coal ash ponds. Public records show that polluted groundwater is flowing towards these wells. For decades, neither the U.S. EPA nor the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources have required the utility to clean up of the groundwater contamination. Photo credit: Dot Griffith
Groundwater assessments prepared by Progress Energy and submitted to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) have found that the contaminated groundwater flows in the direction of the Flemington community wells at a rate of between 109 to 339 feet per year. In 1994, DENR’s Division of Environmental Management Groundwater Section explained that the groundwater flow at the Sutton site is “substantially influenced by the pumping activities of the New Hanover Co. well field [i.e., the Flemington wells]” and that “[t]hese pumping activities may result in a groundwater flow pattern that moves from the lake and ash ponds toward the well field.”
Indeed, a recent report prepared by the North Carolina Division of Environmental Health, Public Water Supply Section for the water system served by the Flemington wells assigned their “Inherent Vulnerability Rating,” “Contaminant Rating” and “Susceptibility Rating” the highest risk rating and listed the Sutton facility numerous times as a “Potential Contaminant Source” for the wells. The report also confirms that many of the highly contaminated groundwater wells at Sutton are within the area that contributes groundwater to the Flemington wells.
This situation also raises an environmental justice issue. Achieving environmental justice involves identifying and addressing disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of federal programs, policies and activities on minority and low-income populations. Here, failure to enforce provisions of the Clean Water Act, to the detriment of the low-income Flemington community, is an environmental justice concern.
The other huge problem caused by decades of untreated coal ash waste being dumped into Sutton Lake is the accumulation of selenium in fish. Decades of sampling reveals that selenium concentrations have increased dramatically over time, such that in recent years the selenium concentrations in the surface water reached levels that cause reproductive failure of fish and waterfowl and have far exceeded those levels in the lake sediments and in fish tissue itself. The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (WRC) determined that the sediment and fish tissue concentrations represent a “High” hazard. Unsurprisingly, the most recent published assessment of the lake by WRC noted that largemouth bass in Sutton Lake were in poor condition, and that from 2008 to 2010, the abundance and size of the largemouth bass population declined by 50 percent.
Sutton Lake is an extremely popular fishing location. It is frequented both by sport fishermen and by subsistence fishermen, who catch fish that are eaten by themselves and their families. Despite the fact that untreated coal ash sluice water, coal pile runoff, chemical metal cleaning wastes and other wastewater is discharged directly into the public waters of Sutton Lake, the public is encouraged to fish there. As selenium levels rose in fish in recent years, the state of North Carolina could have informed the public that the fish in Sutton Lake are in poor health. But in actuality boat ramps and fishing piers were recently improved to provide even greater public access and allow more people to catch and eat the fish out of Sutton Lake.