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July 7, 2013
Editorial: A bold goal to cut toxic waste in California

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(July 7 -- By the Editorial Board)

The best way to avoid having to find somewhere to dump hazardous waste is to reduce how much must be put in landfills in the first place.

So it should not be lost that accompanying the state's contentious decision last week to grant preliminary approval for expanding the West's largest toxic waste landfill is a new commitment to cut the amount of hazardous waste disposed in California in half by 2025.

If the state follows through, this ambitious goal could have far greater long-term significance, though it didn't grab headlines like the draft permit for the Chemical Waste Management dump near Kettleman City. That landfill is bitterly opposed by nearby residents, who blame it for unexplained birth defects and other serious health problems, though the company denies any link and state studies haven't found a common cause.

Debbie Raphael, director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, says the two announcements are "inextricably linked." The state, she says, must escape the trap where its only choice is granting or denying landfill expansions, however safe they may be.

If the state can't reduce the amount of hazardous waste, and if it wants to stop exporting waste to states with looser environmental rules, it would need more landfill space. And that, as Raphael notes, is not fair to the largely poor and Latino communities that bear the burden of living near Kettleman Hills in Kings County, the Buttonwillow landfill near Bakersfield or the Westmorland dump in Imperial County.

If the state reached its reduction goal, the useful life of the proposed Kettleman Hills expansion - another 5 million cubic feet, growing the landfill by half - would double from 10 years to 20.

Reaching the target, however, will not be easy or without opposition, either.

Over the past decade, California has generated an average of 1.7 million tons of hazardous waste each year. Of that, nearly 1 million tons went to landfills - about 600,000 tons to Kettleman or Buttonwillow and 333,000 out of state. The rest was recycled or treated on site.

Of the waste dumped in California landfills, about half includes asbestos, concrete, fuel, lead, metals, solvents and other industrial byproducts. The other half is contaminated soil from cleanup sites, including brownfields like the downtown Sacramento railyard. (On Wednesday, DTSC approved a plan to finish the cleanup of the 240-acre site.)

Officials are in the early stages of looking at ideas, but one possibility is to treat more waste on site, or to consolidate and cap less contaminated soil. Another idea is to find more ways to reuse materials. DTSC is also looking at changes in fees to encourage companies to reduce how much waste they produce. Now, there's no additional fee after generating more than 2,000 tons a year. That doesn't make sense.

To come up with solutions, the department is consulting with representatives from the industry, environmental groups, local governments and others. Officials plan six public workshops starting in the fall. They expect to come up with recommendations by the fall of 2014.

Raphael told The Bee's editorial board she wants an "intellectually honest conversation" on the best approaches and their trade-offs. While the 50 percent reduction target is somewhat arbitrary, she says it's important to set a "bold goal" to encourage innovative ideas and technological advances.

It echoes California's target for diverting garbage from landfills, which has been achieved and increased to 75 percent by 2020.

If the state can reach anywhere near that success with hazardous waste, it would be good for everyone - most of all people who live near California's toxic waste landfills.

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