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Toxic Trash: California’s Aging Hazardous Waste Sites Have Troubling Safety Records

CLIMATE

ENVIRONMENT - Neighbors to one of California’s biggest hazardous waste recyclers say they’re unfairly exposed to pollution, but can California afford to lose one of the few facilities that still takes toxic waste?

California produces millions of tons of hazardous waste every year – toxic detritus that can leach into groundwater or blow into the air. It’s waste that can explode, spark fires, eat through metal containers, destroy ecosystems and sicken people. It’s dangerous material that we have come to rely on and ignore – the flammable liquids used to cleanse metal parts before painting, the lead and acid in old car batteries, even the shampoos that can kill fish.

It all needs to go somewhere.

But over the past four decades, California’s facilities to manage hazardous waste have dwindled. What’s left is a tattered system of older sites with a troubling history of safety violations and polluted soil and groundwater, a CalMatters investigation has found. Many are operating on expired permits. And most are located in communities of color, often ones with high rates of poverty, despite environmental justice laws meant to ensure that the most disadvantaged don’t also face the greatest pollution exposure.

“It’s difficult to permit a new toxic facility. There’s going to be a lot of resistance to building a new one,” said Bill Magavern, the Coalition for Clean Air’s policy director, who advised on a state report in 2013 that examined California’s hazardous waste permitting process. “So the path of least resistance is keeping some of the old ones going.”

This conflict is playing out in Santa Fe Springs, a city of about 19,000 people in Los Angeles County that houses one of the state’s biggest hazardous waste treatment and recycling facilities, called Phibro-Tech. Last year, state regulators issued a draft of a new five-year permit for the company, which has been running on an expired one since 1996. Community activists and environmental groups are opposed.

Phibro-Tech is one of only 72 permitted destinations for hazardous waste in a state that had more than 400 in the early 1980s. Shipping records show it handles as much as 23,000 tons of hazardous waste a year from some of the biggest West Coast companies, including tech giants Intel and TTM Technologies. 

But Phibro-Tech is also a company with a lengthy record of violating laws meant to protect workers, the environment and its neighbors in a low-income Latino community, according to hundreds of pages of inspection reports CalMatters obtained through government databases and public records requests.

In recent years, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control inspectors cited Phibro-Tech for leaking containers and cracked containment barriers. They identified poorly maintained wells that might allow toxic waste to seep into the environment and they dinged the company for failing to address one area of contamination on the site in a timely manner. Among the pollutants state regulators have documented in soil and groundwater under and near the plant are trichloroethylene and hexavalent chromium – the cancer-causing chemical made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich”.

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(Robert Lewis is an investigative reporter on CalMatters' Accountability Desk. Before joining CalMatters he worked at print and public radio outlets across the country including WNYC-New York Public Radio, Newsday and The Sacramento Bee. His investigative reporting has garnered some of the industry’s highest honors including a George Polk Award, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award and Sigma Delta Chi Awards. This story was published in CalMatters.)