The as-yet unscheduled hearing had been planned to explore various hazardous waste issues, but the chair of the state Senate’s Environmental Quality Committee said it will now also probe the out-of-state dumping.
“It’s a real concern,” said Sen. Ben Allen, a Democrat from Redondo Beach. “I think at a gut level, everybody feels as though every state should be handling its own toxic waste and not sending it across borders to other states and countries with less stringent environmental standards.”
CalMatters’ reporting revealed that California businesses and government agencies have disposed of more than 660,000 tons of toxic soil in Arizona landfills since 2018 and nearly a million tons at a Utah landfill, according to data from the state’s hazardous waste tracking system. That includes more than 105,000 tons from the state’s cleanup of lead-contaminated soil in the neighborhoods around the old Exide battery recycling facility in Los Angeles County.
The out-of-state landfills are a cheaper option than California’s two hazardous waste disposal facilities, which are in Kings and Kern counties.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control took most of the Exide residential cleanup waste to the South Yuma County Landfill, which Arizona environmental regulators in 2021 labeled as posing an "imminent and substantial threat" 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.
The landfill made fixes to resolve those and other violations, according to Arizona regulators.
Exide waste has continued to go to that state. The Department of Toxic Substances Control shipped 52 loads of hazardous waste from the Exide residential cleanup to the Yuma landfill from Jan. 25 to Feb. 10, according to figures the department provided.
In Arizona, one lawmaker told CalMatters that she wasn’t aware California was dumping so much hazardous waste in her state’s landfills and called it “very concerning.”
“Arizona is not a dumping ground and hauling California’s hazardous waste so close to Arizona’s agricultural hub and the Colorado River is asking for trouble no matter how many precautions they take,” said Arizona state Rep. Mariana Sandoval, a Democrat whose district includes areas around the South Yuma County Landfill. “I would hope that our new governor will take a close look at this … and encourage California to find landfills in their own state for their own waste.”
New plan coming for California toxic waste
As to whether Californians can expect any major policy change, officials largely pointed to a 2021 law requiring the state to craft a new hazardous waste management plan. As part of the process, the Department of Toxic Substances Control is scheduled to release a report in March looking at how much hazardous waste the state is generating and how it’s being handled.
“The (Hazardous Waste Management) Plan will propose strategies for reducing hazardous waste generation, managing more waste in state, and addressing issues of concern, such as hazardous waste impacts to disadvantaged communities,” according to a statement from the department.
A proposed plan isn’t due until spring 2025.
Asked how the state can justify continuing to dump hazardous waste in out-of-state landfills next to Native American reservations, California’s secretary for environmental protection, Yana Garcia, declined an interview request but provided a written statement.
“The hazardous waste challenges we face across the country are decades in the making. While we know these issues won’t be resolved overnight, California is fully committed to addressing this urgently, and we are prioritizing investing in the search for solutions to do so,” according to her statement.
She said the bill that led to the hazardous waste planning process as well as more stable funding for the department “improved our ability to address this and other toxic waste challenges. Enhancing DTSC’s regulatory oversight and requiring the research and public engagement necessary to come to consensus on solutions moves us in the right direction, but our path to achieve on-the-ground improvements will require true partnership with a multitude of stakeholders and a fundamental shift in how we produce, treat, and handle hazardous waste, across the board.”
Hazardous waste landfills in San Joaquin Valley
Regulators, environmental advocates and lawmakers said the issue is complicated and any solution is likely to be controversial.
California is limited in its ability to regulate interstate commerce. State regulators said there’s not much they can do to stop private entities from taking waste across the border.
And California has only two hazardous waste landfills, both of them in the San Joaquin Valley: the Kettleman Hills Facility in Kings County and the Buttonwillow landfill facility in Kern County.
On paper, the sites appear to have enough space to take contaminated soil. Last year, Jennifer Andrews, a spokesperson for WM (formerly known as Waste Management Inc.), which operates the Kettleman Hills Facility, told CalMatters the site “has enough capacity to meet the State of California’s hazardous waste disposal needs.”
“We also have plenty of space to meet the needs of (Department of Toxic Substances Control) waste for years to come, providing the agency permits new disposal units at our site.”
But the two landfills have been controversial. Both were the subject of numerous regulatory violations over the years and advocates have long protested about the sites, which are near communities of color. In 2014 the Department of Toxic Substances Control approved an expansion at Kettleman Hills (PDF), prompting environmental justice and community groups to file a civil rights complaint, records show.