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State Fines Waste Management for Spills at Kettleman Toxic Dump

FRESNO BEE

Chemical Waste Management must pay $311,194 for failing to report dozens of spills at its Kettleman Hills toxic waste landfill, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control said Wednesday.

But there's "no evidence to suggest" that toxic waste left the landfill or harmed the public, DTSC deputy director of enforcement Brian Johnson said.

Chem Waste, operator of the largest toxic waste landfill in the West, said it won't fight the penalty, which included $291,208 in fines plus departmental costs. Spills were small and "were all immediately cleaned up," the company said.

Consumer Watchdog, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit consumer advocacy group, decried the fine as a "slap on the wrist." The company could have been fined as much as $25,000 per spill, for a total of $1.8 million, Consumer Watchdog said. This is not the first time Chem Waste has been fined for spills.

In 2011, the company got hit by DTSC with a $46,000 fine for not reporting similar releases and by the federal Environmental Protection Agency with a $1 million penalty for lax operation of its lab at the landfill.

The hazardous waste landfill is 2.6 miles from Kettleman City, a Kings County town of 1,500 that is the site of a rash of unexplained birth defects. Some children died, but a state investigation said the birth defects couldn't be blamed on the landfill.

Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, spokeswoman for People for Clean Air and Water of Kettleman City, said the state enforcement action does nothing to answer community questions about why health issues such as childhood cancer, anemia and birth defects keep occurring.

"For too long, Chem Waste has been given free rein with the result that the health of residents has always been put aside," she said.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, an activist group in San Francisco, said state regulators should have revoked Chem Waste's operating permit over the spills.

"It's a bigger fine than usual, but it's not enough," said Bradley Angel, the group's executive director. He called the fine "the cost of doing business" for Chem Waste.

The fine is punishment for 72 unreported spills over four years that came to light last year, the Department of Toxic Substances Control said.

Despite the company's failure to report, the spills were "generally small" and occurred when incoming loads were sampled, Johnson said. Most were under 1 gallon, he said.

Spills included lead-contaminated soil and herbicides.

The state obtained a court order last week requiring Chem Waste to report spills verbally within a day and in writing in 10 days. Meanwhile, the landfill is running out of room and is seeking a state permit to expand. Johnson said the state is working on the application and a decision on the permit should be issued sometime this year.

Additionally, Chem Waste's operating permit expires in June, but the company can keep operating under its current permit until the state reaches a decision on renewal, he said.