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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on December 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 41 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 41

EPA takes public comment before pushing forward with Casmalia Resources Superfund Site


The first time Terri Stricklin heard about the extent of the toxic waste dump just a mile or so north of the unincorporated community of Casmalia was in 1980.

"It was funny," she told the Sun at her family's steakhouse, The Hitching Post, one of the town's only attractions. "This guy was painting trucks for the guys that owned the Casmalia Resources dump, and he's the one that saw all these open pits and trucks pulling up and dumping stuff in the pits, and he came and talked to my brothers and I and said, 'Did you know this is going on up there?' And we had no idea.

The EPA proposed a plan that could cost more than $100 million and take the next 100 years to manage and “clean up” the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site.

"That's when it all started," she added.

Nearly a decade passed before the facility stopped accepting waste in 1989 and finally ceased operations in 1991.

Throughout its history beginning in 1972, the site accepted more than 5.6 billion pounds of waste from at least 10,000 generators.

"If you can imagine 30 truckloads a day going back and forth to the site over a period of about 16 years, that was about our rough calculation [of how much waste was disposed of at the site]," said Russell Mechem, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) remedial project manager for the site.

On Dec. 6, the EPA held a public meeting in Casmalia to aid concerned citizens during a public comment period as the federal agency gears up to implement its multimillion dollar proposed ground and surface water treatment plan. The EPA will be taking comments on the plan up until Jan. 30.

At the meeting, in a packed room at Orcutt Academy Charter School, Mechem told the audience of 30 or so people—mostly locals—the myriad challenges crews would face as they attempted to "clean up" the infamous toxic waste dump that sits just 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and only 10 miles from Santa Maria and Orcutt.

"We have many former waste management units ... we call them 'pits, ponds, and lagoons'—anything that was used to store different types of waste," he explained. "We also have lots of different chemicals."

The Casmalia facility accepted a wide range of solid and liquid hazardous waste materials during its operation, ranging from petroleum, acids, bases, organic chemical solvents, petroleum solvents, paint sludge, pesticides, infectious wastes, septic tank pumping, and sewage sludge.

In fact, the types and varieties of waste number so high and are so diverse that experts have trouble sharing a definitive list outlining them all.

"People sometimes ask for a list of the chemicals that were disposed at this site, and one possible response would be, 'Well, give us a list of the chemicals that were not disposed at the site," Mechem said.

And some of those chemicals became something far worse than the sum of their parts when they blended together.

One example is referred to by scientists as "DNAPL," or dense nonaqueous phase liquids.

"When they did chemical analysis of it they identified 100 separate chemicals—one very long list of individual compounds," Mechem said. Researchers found the material was heavier than water and noted in their reports that it tended to sink.

"What happened [at the site] is that [the DNAPL] tends to sink to the bottom of the landfills and accumulate along the base, and if there are fractures in the material, the compound can move into fractures," Mechem said. "It's complicated to work with."

The EPA estimates that there could be as many as 100,000 gallons of DNAPL settled into the bottom of Casmalia's many ponds, pits, and lagoons. Agency officials say they hope to extract the liquid in the coming years but admit that they will never be able to remove all of the sludge-like material.

It's for that reason that Stricklin says the site will never truly be clean, at least not in her or her immediate family's lifetime.

"My children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will always have to be aware of what they are doing at that site," she said. "Every time someone use the word 'cleanup,' the hair on the back of my neck stands up because it won't ever be 'cleaned up.'

"They can only remediate, operate it, and maintain it in perpetuity," she added.

Superfund sites

The EPA began designating Superfund Sites following Congress' passage of the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) in 1980. The legislation came about due to national concerns regarding toxic waste dumps in the 1970s, including upstate New York's "Love Canal" and Kentucky's "Valley of the Drums."

According to EPA officials, CERCLA is informally called Superfund and allows the agency to clean up contaminated sites while also forcing responsible parties to either perform cleanups or reimburse the government for EPA-led cleanup work.

The EPA says the Superfund's goals are: to protect human health and the environment by cleaning up polluted sites; make responsible parties pay for the work; involve communities in the process; and finally return the Superfund sites to "productive use."

The federal agency took over the Casmalia location in 1992, citing Superfund removal authority to conduct emergency response operations and stabilize the site for the next four years.

"While they stopped accepting waste at the site, they didn't shut it down properly and so we got involved," EPA Attorney Karen Goldberg said.

During that time, the agency performed what it called essential operations: on site collection, treatment, and disposal of contaminated liquids; management of surface water; groundwater monitoring; and stabilization of the landfills.

A map released by the EPA details the various areas of contamination found at the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site. The EPA proposed a plan that could cost more than $100 million over and take the next 100 years to manage and “clean up” the site.

In 1997, the EPA and the Casmalia Steering Committee—the group representing the site's primary polluters—finalized a consent decree, which is a legally enforceable document binding the collective responsible parties to the work needed to mitigate the dangers at the site.

Since then, the steering committee has led mitigation efforts under EPA oversight as required by the consent decree and CERCLA process. The work consisted of capping four out of the five onsite landfills; extraction, treatment, and disposal of contaminated liquids; along with monitoring and routine site maintenance.

"A great deal of work has been accomplished," Mechem said to the crowd of community members in Casmalia at the Dec. 6 meeting.

Most of the new mitigation efforts will be done with money acquired through the site's responsible polluting parties. Thus far, the EPA has reached more than 20 settlements with polluters to the tune of $112 million in funding.

The agency's "preferred alternative" has estimated capital costs of about $60 million and involves landfill capping and liquids extraction. The plan comes with annual costs numbering more than $4 million and will ultimately cost roughly $100 million over the next 100 years.

Even if the public approves the prefered iteration of the EPA's plan, the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site will face decades of maintenance and require tens of millions more dollars.

When asked if contamination of the nearby community's water or soil was a concern, Mechem responded: "We do not actually have contamination from the site getting to the town. The actual risks to the town of Casmalia ... we just don't have an indication for them at this point."

Staff Writer Spencer Cole can be reached at

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