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Jul 5

Regulated & Hazardous Waste

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The contaminated soil that California government agencies and businesses generate – much of it from Superfund cleanup sites – goes to specialized landfills, but it also gets shipped to states with weaker environmental rules. Those facilities are cheaper alternatives with less state oversight, a CalMatters investigation found. In some cases, they’re near Native American reservations where residents worry about toxic exposures.

One example is the La Paz landfill in Arizona, which gets loads of contaminated soil from California and elsewhere. In 2021, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality labeled it a “potential threat” after inspectors noted windblown litter and elevated levels of chromium, a toxic metal that can harm people and animals.

La Paz officials said they were trying to address those concerns and that the landfill had passed all required inspections. State officials agreed with that assessment. They told CalMatters they typically don’t perform their own water testing at landfills and rely instead on the facility to test and report its results accurately.

But state records and interviews show the La Paz landfill obtained an exemption from the requirements of the regulated community in 1996, which lets smaller landfills avoid monitoring for contaminants such as lead and cadmium that can seep into groundwater. In addition, officials said the landfill had been testing groundwater for more than 25 years but that it wasn’t required to do so every year.

Some engineering experts say regular landfills are capable of safely disposing of contaminated soil, without the extra safety features required at a hazardous waste facility. Landfills with composite liners have a remarkable record of containing toxic chemicals, they said. And newer landfills are insulated so that the temperature changes in the soil can’t cause toxins to migrate into the groundwater, experts said.

Other environmental advocates and residents say the issue calls into question a state that prides itself on being an environmental leader. They argue that the dumping of contaminated soil in other states shows that the state isn’t taking its own environmental laws seriously and has lost sight of its mission to protect public health and the environment.