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California's solution to regulations around hazardous waste: send it across state lines


California has some of the toughest environmental regulations in the country. But an investigation by NPR and the nonprofit news outlet CalMatters found the state routinely evades its own laws by exporting hazardous waste. Robert Lewis has the story.

ROBERT LEWIS, BYLINE: Drive five hours east of Los Angeles, and you leave the Golden State...

DAVID HARPER: This is the opening arms of Arizona.

LEWIS: ...Where California sends its toxic waste.

HARPER: This is where it's at.

LEWIS: David Harper is a member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, whose reservation is nearby. He's standing outside the La Paz County Landfill, where in the past five years, California hauled more than 160,000 tons of soil that the state labeled hazardous waste. This is soil workers in California dug up at old industrial or military sites because it was contaminated with things like lead and DDT.

And where is your reservation from here?

HARPER: It is east from here, approximately 5 to 10 miles from this area.

LEWIS: California law says this waste is so toxic if dumped in-state, it needs to go to hazardous waste disposal facilities with extra liners and other safeguards. But California's regulations stop at the border. So for decades, the people overseeing cleanup sites have simply taken the toxic soil to states with weaker environmental laws and dumped it at regular landfills, which is cheaper. David Harper doesn't think they should be able to get away with that.

HARPER: Why didn't California keep it themselves? What did we do to create this issue to where you have to bring your toxins to our traditional homeland? Why is that fair?

MEREDITH WILLIAMS: Quite frankly, it's beyond our authority to tell them how to manage that waste.

LEWIS: Meredith Williams is director of California's Department of Toxic Substances Control. She says her agency can't really stop private businesses from trucking waste out of state. But Williams' own department is one of the biggest out-of-state dumpers. The agency routinely takes contaminated soil and trucks it to Arizona. And records show lots of other California government agencies are doing the same.

WILLIAMS: I can't make a blanket statement about the safety of that because everything's so situational.

LEWIS: I asked Williams if she thinks it's safe to take waste her state considers hazardous and dump it at regular landfills.

WILLIAMS: What is the hazard, though? Why is it classified as hazardous waste? And how well is that out-of-state landfill managed?

LEWIS: And it's a lot of waste. Shipping records show California cleanup sites took more than 660,000 tons of toxic soil to Arizona landfills in the past five years and about a million tons to Utah. There's currently a Utah landfill trying to get a permit to dispose of California's contaminated soil right on the banks of the Great Salt Lake. Again, California regulator Meredith Williams.

WILLIAMS: We have our hands full enough. We're not in a position to go out of state and assess an out-of-state landfill.

LEWIS: Regulators in Arizona and Utah declined interview requests, but did answer written questions. They say their states don't consider the contaminated soil to be hazardous, and they do inspect the landfills where it's going. Arizona regulators a couple of years ago actually labeled one landfill an imminent threat because of groundwater concerns, though the problems there were ultimately fixed.

MORTON BARLAZ: What you put in the landfill isn't the question. The question is what might come out?

LEWIS: Engineering Professor Morton Barlaz at North Carolina State University says modern landfills are well designed.

BARLAZ: The concept of, yeah, we're going to put a highly contaminated soil in a landfill and whatever's in it's going to reach out to groundwater - that's just not what happens.

LEWIS: But that's little comfort to David Harper, who takes me on a tour of his reservation. He's pointing out mountains, each a part of the Mojave creation story. One is called Old Woman.

HARPER: The creator made her forever overseer of our land. And these areas are sacred. But to anybody else, it's just a rock. It's just a road. It's just...

LEWIS: It's just a dump.

HARPER: It's just a dump.

LEWIS: But it's also his homeland.

For NPR News, I'm Robert Lewis.

SIMON: That story comes to us from NPR's California Newsroom and CalMatters.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Robert Lewis / Cal Matters