California’s Hazardous Waste Lost in a Flurry of Blurry Carbon-Copy Paperwork

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Don’t let California’s strictest-in-the-nation rules for handling hazardous waste fool you. State officials really don’t know where all the 1.7 million tons of toxic gunk shipped to special landfills actually ends up, according to the Los Angeles Times.

A review by the newspaper of the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) procedures for tracking the material found that it can’t account for 1% of the material that has been shipped during the past year. That might not sound like much until you consider it adds up to 174,000 tons of waste, enough to fill 23,000 trucks. The state’s database can tell when it was shipped, but not whether it ever arrived at its legal destination in California or out of state.

The fear is that the waste is being dumped in the desert, public landfills, down sewer drains or at other locations to save money and hassle, presenting health hazards to the public at large.

DTSC Director Debbie Raphael told the Times that the threat does not exist. “I do not believe Californians are at risk,” she said, but conceded the whereabouts of the hazardous waste is a “question mark.”

The loads include 20,000 tons of neurotoxic lead, 520 tons of carcinogenic benzene and 355 tons of the flammable solvent methyl ethyl ketone. That last one is also know in scientific circles as butanone and among laypersons as “methyl ethyl death.”  

The state’s disposal system isn’t computerized. It relies on typewritten paper documents that include five carbon copies, which are distributed to various parties along the bureaucratic route. Much of the information on the carbons is so faint as to be unreadable and is not entered into the state computer database.  

The Times acknowledged in its story that some of the material may have arrived at its destination but failed to make an appearance in the database. But reporters also picked up the phone and talked to employees at the state’s two hazardous waste disposal sites who said some stuff just never showed up.

Ninety-six loads containing 14 tons of arsenic and 20 tons of lead were recorded as having been sent to Chemical Waste Management's facility in Kettleman City. The computer does not show they ever arrived, although an employee said they could account for 38 of them. The others were not dropped off.

The California Hazardous Waste Control Act of 1972 was regarded as a model for the country, but the state has still been plagued by hazardous waste disposal throughout the past 40 years. It was chided by the state auditor general in 1983 for having a waste disposal system that did not protect the public or the environment. It introduced its current tracking system in 1990.  

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reportedly has plans to introduce an electronic tracking system that will replace the state’s paper trail, but it is not expected to be available before 2015.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

State Fails to Keep Track of Hazardous Waste (by Jessica Garrison, Ben Poston and Kim Christensen, Los Angeles Times)

Hazardous Waste Transporters (California Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Hazardous Waste Generator Program (Union City)

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