EPA: Chiquita presents ‘imminent and substantial endangerment’

Liquids on top of scrim tarp and gas pillows on January 18, 2024. Photo: EPA.gov
Liquids on top of scrim tarp and gas pillows on January 18, 2024. Photo: EPA.gov

Attorneys representing residents file petition against county, seeking landfill’s closure 

By Signal Staff 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has ordered Chiquita Canyon LLC to take immediate steps to protect human health and the environment at its Castaic landfill, as the governmental heat continues to increase on the embattled landfill that has drawn thousands of complaints over the past year due to odors and toxic liquid related to subsurface smoldering. 

The order Thursday morning came on the same day that attorneys for nearby residents impacted by the landfill’s stench filed a petition in L.A. County Superior Court asking the court to order the landfill closed. The petition alleges that L.A. County government, in allowing the landfill to continue operating, has violated the California Environmental Quality Act and anti-discrimination laws intended to ensure environmental justice. 

The EPA order requires Chiquita to mitigate off-site community impacts caused by noxious odors and hazardous waste leachate and to contain and reduce the smoldering or reaction event occurring at the landfill, according to a news release issued by the EPA. 

The EPA’s news release bore the headline, “EPA Finds Chiquita Canyon Landfill Presents Imminent and Substantial Endangerment to Nearby Communities.” 

It was the second major governmental alert this week directed at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, after the state Department of Toxic Substances Control announced on Tuesday that it had hit the landfill with five Class I violations, finding that the company had illegally dumped liquid toxic waste at a facility in Gardena after trucking it away from Chiquita. 

The EPA’s news release said its order is in coordination with the multi-agency critical action team formed Nov. 30 by local, state and federal agencies “to address the human health and environmental impacts caused by the deteriorating conditions at the Chiquita Canyon Landfill.” 

“This order reflects EPA’s commitment to ensuring landfill operators mitigate noxious odors and comply with federal law to prevent public exposure to hazardous wastes,” EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzman said in the release. “Today’s order is the result of local, state, and federal collaboration to better protect the health of nearby residents as well as the surrounding environment.” 

A spokesman for Chiquita Canyon Landfill released the following statement Thursday after the EPA announcement: 

“Chiquita takes very seriously its role in the safe operation of the landfill. We believe it is important to keep the community informed and have been communicating openly and transparently with the local community throughout this process, including providing real-time air monitoring data on our website. 

“While today’s unilateral administrative order from the EPA is consistent with recommendations and orders from our other partner agencies, we welcome their continued involvement as we work with the multi-agency action team to address the ongoing elevated temperature landfill reaction occurring in an older area of the landfill,” the statement continued. “Many of the recommendations are already underway and being implemented. We are working tirelessly to resolve any addressable odor impacts in the community as quickly as possible.” 

The 639-acre landfill has garnered thousands of complaints from nearby residents about noxious odors and leachate — the result of rainwater or other liquid filtering through or draining from wastes placed in a landfill — and prompted the issuance of over 100 notices of violation from state and local regulatory agencies.  

The source of the complaints is a subsurface smoldering or elevated temperature reaction at the landfill that began in May 2022 and has grown in size and impact, the EPA release said, adding that, as of Jan. 17, the reaction area was located approximately 1,000 feet from the nearest resident. 

In 2023, residents of the communities surrounding the landfill submitted more than 6,800 complaints of odor nuisance to the South Coast Air Quality Monitoring District. Residents reported numerous health impacts from the noxious odors, including eye irritation, respiratory symptoms and skin issues.  

The AQMD has consistently traced odors back to the landfill and the reaction area and it has taken independent enforcement actions to mitigate the public health impacts caused to the community by the odors, the EPA release said.   

The leachate seeping from the reaction area contains elevated levels of benzene, a hazardous substance. Benzene, a carcinogen, can adversely affect human health through air exposure or the consumption of benzene-contaminated water.  

The subsurface reaction has caused a significant increase in leachate production, which Chiquita failed to properly manage as hazardous waste and has not been properly treating, storing, or disposing of the leachate, the EPA release said — echoing the announcement earlier in the week from the state DTSC, which said Chiquita had illegally disposed of toxic leachate containing hazardous levels of benzene. 

The unilateral administrative order issued by EPA requires Chiquita Canyon LLC to comply with the law and properly manage, treat, and dispose of hazardous waste and to take steps to mitigate the odors emanating from the landfill, the EPA release said. 

Congressman responds 

In a phone interview with The Signal on Thursday, Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Santa Clarita, said the EPA is getting involved because the federal government is now realizing that the situation is requiring federal involvement. He said there are three issues that need to be addressed, in order: mitigating the problem; finding the root cause of the problem; and determining where the fault lies and whether it was negligence or a purposeful effort to keep the public unaware of the problem. 

“Obviously, the landfill has not been doing its job correctly,” Garcia said. 

Garcia added that this is the time for the landfill and all agencies involved to be fully transparent with the public, as the issue is affecting the residents of Val Verde and Castaic the most. 

“This is a whole government problem,” Garcia said. “It’s not a time for finger pointing.” 

While not saying it will solve the problem, Garcia did sympathize with the Val Verde and Castaic residents, calling for the landfill to be shut down temporarily.  

“I am going to be pushing and supporting their cause to shut the facility down,” Garcia said. 

He added that the analysis of the effects of the odors would determine if the landfill needs to be permanently closed, but that other landfills have had problems that eventually were fixed. 

“We do need these facilities,” Garcia said. 

Senator responds 

State Sen. Scott Wilk, R-Santa Clarita, said in a phone interview with The Signal on Thursday that “this is a crisis” and that, in his travels to the area around the landfill, he has personally felt ill due to the odors. 

“I certainly am fully aware of what’s going on,” Wilk said. 

Wilk compared the situation to the Aliso Canyon gas leak that first became an issue in 2015. He said they aren’t quite apples-to-apples situations since officials were able to determine that the gas leak could be plugged, but that due to the nature of the odors at the landfill coming from underground, it’s completely different. 

“It’s unfortunately going to take quite a while, I don’t know how long that is, to even have the proper analysis done to figure out how to do all the mitigations,” Wilk said. 

Wilk added that shutting the facility down is not an option at this point, in his opinion, as the long-term health effects are currently unknown. He said he is concerned about the high levels of benzene that have been found to be coming from the landfill and potentially into groundwater. 

“That’s definitely nasty stuff,” Wilk said. 

Wilk commended L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, whose Fifth District includes the Santa Clarita Valley and the landfill, for pushing to get Val Verde and Castaic residents relocated. He said the landfill, which is owned by Waste Connections, a national corporation, should take seriously the fact that a federal agency is now stepping in to oversee the situation. 

“I would hope that they would take seriously the recommendations by Supervisor Barger to relocate residents,” Wilk said. 

Assemblywoman responds 

State Assemblywoman Pilar Schiavo, D-Chatsworth, issued a statement Thursday describing the situation as an urgent crisis demanding immediate solutions. Schiavo’s statement was accompanied by a letter to representatives of the DTSC, South Coast AQMD and the State Water Resources Control Board seeking to “to elevate an environmental hazard with ongoing health and safety impacts to the communities of the 40th Assembly District and beyond.” 

The letter was signed by Schiavo — whose 40th District encompasses most of the SCV, including Castaic, Val Verde and the landfill site — along with four other Assembly members, including the chair of the L.A. County Assembly delegation and the chair of the Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials Committee. 

The letter calls for “an urgent meeting to discuss the current state of oversight and accountability imposed upon Chiquita Canyon Landfill, the steps that DTSC will be taking to expand monitoring and mitigation, and how the DTSC, the Water Board, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District will be coordinating with local, state and federal entities to ensure rapid resolution to this crisis.” 

“I am deeply concerned by the recent Chiquita Canyon Landfill violations reported by the Department of Toxic Substance Control,” Schiavo’s statement said. “The fact that the DTSC identifies these violations as ‘the most serious’ representing ‘a significant threat to human health or safety or the environment’ brings this issue to the level of an urgent crisis that must be met head-on with immediate solutions.” 

Schiavo also said she welcomes the additional oversight by the federal EPA. 

The assemblywoman’s statement added that she concurs with L.A. County Supervisor Kathryn Barger’s Feb. 8 letter demanding that the landfill “urgently provide relocation assistance services” to residents from surrounding communities who request it due to the stench emanating from the landfill. 

Said Schiavo’s statement on Thursday: “We must focus on both the current impacts on the daily lives of our residents as well as long-term impacts and solutions, so residents get the support they need now and in the future and to ensure this never happens again. That’s why I fully support the call for affected neighbors to be voluntarily relocated, with all associated costs covered by the landfill.” 

Supervisor responds 

Barger was one of the first county officials to put the landfill on notice when the violations first became public last year. 

In a phone interview with The Signal on Thursday, she said that, since day one, she has been pushing for the landfill owners to find the root cause of the odors and eliminate them. The issue, she said, is that the issue is seemingly beyond the expertise of the county departments, which led her to contact the California Department of Resources, Recycling and Recovery to help. 

“We now realize the problem is complex,” Barger said. “I solicited the state, CalRecycle, to ask for their technical assistance to figure out what is really causing the problem. CalRecycle’s expert opinion noted that the underlying reaction that is causing the odor is buried deep within the closed part of the landfill. And that’s important to say: it’s the closed parts, not the active area, right now. Their opinion also included a number of corrective measures that the landfill should take to slow and eventually stop this reaction. My focus continues to be on ensuring that the county works with CalRecycle, a state agency, and appropriate agencies like AQMD, who has been tremendous, to hold the landfill operator accountable and take each and every recommended step. And according to CalRecycle, there was no evidence that closing the landfill was solve this problem.” 

“I have not shied away from this,” Barger added, “and nor will I, by the way, because I’ve talked to people that are friends that live out there, and actually one of my staff members has a family that lives out there, and it is impacting quality of life. There is no question about it.” 

As part of her next steps, Barger is requesting a briefing at Tuesday’s Board of Supervisors meeting that will have the Department of Public Health, Department of Public Works and Department of Regional Planning present their findings in front of the board. 

“Given the complicated nature of the oversight of the landfill, which previously included county and state agencies and now includes the United States EPA, I’ve asked for a full briefing of the Board of Supervisors this coming Tuesday to ensure that there is a transparent presentation to the board and to the public that lays out the best information we have,” Barger said. “I’m all about transparency. This includes a discussion of roles and responsibilities, solutions to address the odor incident and ultimately the authority of county, state and federal agencies to continue to take escalating corrective measures up to and including closure of the landfill to address these impacts.” 

The EPA has created a website with information on the issues at Chiquita and the related enforcement actions. That site can be found at www.epa.gov/ca/chiquita-canyon-landfill-castaic-ca. 

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