Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Tainted Dirt From California Kicks Up a Storm in Arizona

Colorado rancher Don Norris was willing to let some discarded household chemicals be dumped in a landfill adjacent to his 8,000 acres in Colorado Springs. But when it came to using the site as a resting place for DDT-laced sediment from a San Francisco Bay area cleanup, Mr. Norris drew the line.

He and other Coloradans successfully halted a shipment of 80,000 tons of contaminated dirt destined for their community.

About these ads

Now, the soil - and the controversy - is being rerouted to another disposal site in Mobile, Ariz., 30 miles south of Phoenix.

The opposition to this soil shipment is indicative of an emerging impediment to efforts to mop up the nation's most polluted sites - known as Superfund sites. It also points up the state-by-state patchwork of how "safe" hazardous waste is defined.

Under a law passed by Congress in 1980, a federal trust fund was set up from taxes on mainly oil and chemical firms to pay for toxic-waste cleanups.

But the protests of residents here and in Colorado are yet another reason only some 55 sites on the government's list of 1,200 most contaminated sites have been cleaned up.

While everyone, it seems, favors cleaning up the environment, they don't want the process to result in hazardous debris deposited in their backyards.

For Mr. Norris, the choice was clear. His ranch lies in an area under development and is a quarter-mile from an underground water supply, he says. "Colorado Springs and Pueblo will someday be a strip city," he adds. "We don't need a hazardous-waste site, because it's just going to ruin land values in this area."

But the need to transport the sediment was equally clear to John Lyons, an attorney for the Environmental Protection Agency in San Francisco.

About these ads

Richmond Harbor, where the DDT had settled, is bordered by a low-income community whose residents fish in the harbor and consume their catches. The presence of DDT, a pesticide banned by the government in 1973, he says, posed "an unacceptable risk to them; it's at unsafe levels."

THE pesticide originated from a now dormant production facility. Its presence in the soil is considered hazardous to humans because it is stored in increased amounts as it makes its way up the food chain. The contaminated dirt contains up to 30 parts per million of DDT, an amount that makes it a hazardous waste under California law, but not under less-stringent federal or state statutes in the West, including Arizona.

Officials of Waste Management Inc., a private firm that has a $10 million contract to dispose of the soil in its Mobile landfill, estimate it would cost $16 to $40 more per ton to send it to a hazardous-waste site in California than to Arizona.

The first of several shipments of soil from the San Francisco Bay area made their way by rail to Mobile last week where they were met by protesters, including Greenpeace USA representatives.

Waste Management says the soil poses no danger to anyone, and that its facilities are well-equipped to store the dirt safely.

Meanwhile, Greenpeace spokesman Bradley Angel agrees with the EPA on the need to remove the soil from Richmond Harbor, but objects to selection of the landfill at Mobile, calling it "environmental racism." The disposal, he says, targets those least likely to resist - a neighborhood with a relatively high number of low-income, minority residents who have little political clout.

Environmentalists in the past have chided the state for not enacting tougher laws to keep hazardous wastes out. A law was proposed six years ago when ENSCO, an Arkansas firm, sought to build a hazardous-waste incinerator near Mobile. The state bought out the firm's $44 million investment, halting the project. But Arizona's legislature failed to pass the law.

"It's unfortunate that folks are upset about the choice of locations," says Mr. Lyons, adding the San Francisco spill posed a far more hazardous situation to residents there than the transported dirt ever will to Arizonans.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.