Saturday, February 23, 2019     Volume: 19, Issue: 51

Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on July 3rd, 2018, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 19, Issue 18 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 19, Issue 18

Dumping ground: EPA announces final Casmalia cleanup plan at surprise ceremony

By Spencer Cole

The Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt made a surprise visit to Santa Barbara County on June 28 to sign and announce the final cleanup plan for the Casmalia Resources Superfund Site. 

Pruitt's presence was welcomed only by a handful of reporters, three county supervisors, and a smattering of other local officials, as he toured an area famously known as a dumping ground for dangerous substances.

"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," EPA Remedial Project Manager Russell Mechem told the Sun in December of 2017.

Mechem told the Sun the Casmalia facility accepted a wide range of solid and hazardous waste materials during its operation beginning in 1972, including petroleum, acids, bases, organic chemical solvents, petroleum solvents, paint sludge, pesticides, infectious wastes, septic tank pumping, and sewage sludge.

One of the waste products of most concern to safety officials and nearby residents is a veritable chemical cocktail referred to by scientists as "DNAPL," or dense nonaqueous phase liquids. Chemical analysis by government scientists identified more than 100 separate chemicals, and found that the material was heavier than water. Researchers noted in their reports that the toxic ooze tended to sink. 

The EPA estimates 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. 

    "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."

Peter Strauss is a consultant for the Casmalia Community Group, a collective of citizens that live adjacent to the site. Before that, Strauss worked on the site in a more general capacity as an advisor for remediation efforts. He said the DNAPL, and its cousin, LNAPL (light nonaqueous phase liquids) or essentially petroleum products, were major issues at the site and would continue to be for decades, if not centuries. 

It's why he and the community group are adamant about advocating for perpetual government oversight despite the EPA's five-year final cleanup effort announced on June 28.

"In my opinion, this is not a 'final cleanup,' this is the final cleanup plan," Strauss said. "So what we are really talking about is regulatory oversight; that's what I've been concerned about for a long time." 

What Strauss is referring to is the proposed plan Pruitt signed into action to close out the month, which is estimated to take five years and cost around $60 million. The work includes the removal of contaminated liquids and soils, engineered capping of waste disposal areas, design and construction of upgraded groundwater collection and treatment systems, as well as ongoing monitoring and maintenance to ensure on-site containment. Annual operations and oversight costs are estimated at $4.1 million per year, following the initial five-year plan's completion. 

"The final cleanup plan utilizes the most effective cleanup technologies and will ensure the Casmalia site will be addressed in a comprehensive and lasting manner," Pruitt said when he signed the plan into action in Casmalia.

Those final two words in the Administrator's statement are key for people like Strauss, and the site's community group chair, Terri Stricklin, whose family owns The Hitching Post steakhouse right next to the toxic waste dump. 

"My children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren will always have to be aware of what they are doing at that site," Stricklin told the Sun in December 2017. "Every time someone uses 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." 

Strauss said maintaining the site and monitoring the area carefully was exceptionally important from a long-term perspective, especially considering how many chemicals are on site above a clay bedrock that has already seen signs of seepage. He noted that in the winter of 2016, traces of LNAPL pooled to the surface in an area near an extraction well due to excessive rain.  

It's instances like those, he added, that highlight the importance of continual oversight from government agencies to ensure the site stays contained. 

Otherwise: "You're bound to in the long-term work around the small issues and those issues might build up and become a big issue," Strauss said. 

The Casmalia Site is a 252-acre former commercial hazardous waste management facility that accepted about 5.6 billion pounds of wastes from over 10,000 generators between 1973 and 1989. It sits just 4 miles from the Pacific Ocean, and is only 10 miles from Santa Maria and Orcutt. Guadalupe is 8 miles north, while Lompoc is another 16 miles to the southeast.

The facility closed in 1989, and was placed on the National Priorities List in 2001.

And although the EPA claims the site is "stabilized" and "poses no immediate risks to the public," cleanup work, monitoring, and ongoing maintenance will help provide long-term community protection, officials say. 

In 1997, the agency reached a settlement with the Casmalia Steering Committee (CSC), a group of 54 companies that sent large volumes of waste to the facility. Under that settlement, the CSC will conduct and fund the final remedy with EPA oversight.

On April 16 of this year, Casmalia was added to the Administrator's Emphasis List to "spur action on cleanup and redevelopment efforts." The list represents sites that will "benefit from targeted, immediate, and intense agency attention," according to agency statements.

The EPA did not respond to the Sun's requests for comment by press time. 

Strauss noted that really all the people in the area wanted was some sign of progress and reassurance from the federal government that crews won't just pack up and leave after the five-year remediation work is complete. 

"The Casmalia community group sort of said that we want more of it done now so we don't lay it on to future generations," he said, "so even if it costs more money, do it now because they don't want to have something just buried and it becomes a problem 30 or 40 years from now." 

The EPA claims that once the work is finished, rain water won't have to be collected in pools at the site and disposed of by crews later. According to the agency's documents on Casmalia, the runoff will simply be allowed to flow as nature intended it.

"I have no idea whether that's true or not," Strauss added. 

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