EPA Plans Talks With DTSC After EJ Advocates Raise Civil Rights Concerns

May 11, 2022

EPA is planning to meet with California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) in response to concerns from environmental justice advocates that state regulators are continuing to violate EJ and Civil Rights Act requirements related to hazardous waste landfill permitting and regulation.

The advocates met May 4 with EPA Region 9 Administrator Martha Guzman and other EPA regional and headquarters officials and staff over DTSC's alleged violations of Resource Conservation & Recovery Act (RCRA), EJ and civil rights requirements.

Their push seeks to elevate a years-long conflict between DTSC and EJ groups over the alleged violations and inaction by the state regarding hazardous waste sites.

“[W]e requested this meeting as we are frustrated, and furious, at the ongoing violations of environmental justice and civil rights by [California EPA (Cal/EPA)] and the Department of Toxic Substances Control -- including their ongoing violation of key provisions of the Title VI Civil Rights Settlement in 2016,” Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice says in a May 4 email to EPA prefacing the meeting. “We are also frustrated at USEPA’s failure, and refusal to date, to do anything about this situation.”

Representatives of El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpia/People for Clean Air and Water of Kettleman City also joined the meeting.

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, told Inside EPA he believes officials in EPA’s civil rights office and others do care about these issues, but the question is “will they have the spine” to protect EJ and uphold civil rights and comply with mandates because he contends that is not happening now.

In part, the advocates want EPA to ensure California and its counties are complying with the Civil Rights Act and tie that compliance to any federal funds they receive, according to Angel.

The EJ advocates asked EPA what it is going to do to address years-old complaints filed under Title VI of the rights law that have still resolved concerns about expired permits, he said.

Civil rights compliance is “not just a box to check,” he said.

While EPA did not provide an answer at the meeting, he said EPA committed to talking with DTSC soon.

In a written reply to questions about the meeting, an EPA spokesperson said Guzman convened the meeting to respond to concerns raised by Greenaction related to specific hazardous waste facilities in California.

The meeting also included “a representative of the EPA-Headquarters External Civil Rights Compliance Office, and senior leadership and staff from EPA Region 9’s civil rights, environmental justice, and solid and hazardous waste programs.

The spokesperson said the agency “is currently reviewing the information shared by members of Greenaction and does plan to respond. In the meantime, EPA plans to meet with the California Department of Toxic Substances Control later this month, and to follow up with Greenaction thereafter.”

EPA’s commitment to address concerns marks just the latest sign of how the federal agency is undertaking plans to step up its scrutiny of state permit programs under Title VI of the Civil Right Act. Last month, EPA launched a formal investigation of Louisiana’s air permit programs and is also conducting similar investigations in Colorado, Michigan and other states.

‘Knowing Failure’

In its email to EPA, Greenaction laid out several concerns with DTSC to discuss at the meeting: “DTSC’s knowing failure and stonewalling on adopting regulatory criteria on considering cumulative impacts in permit and regulatory provisions, in violation of state law (SB673)” and the 2016 federal civil rights settlement, as well as DTSC’s long-time allowance for two hazardous waste landfills to operate in the farmworker communities of Kettleman City and Buttonwillow with long-expired permits that the advocates say were issued under “blatantly illegal and racially discriminatory permit processes.”

Another issue is related to Kettleman City’s clean drinking water supply -- which was achieved through a civil rights settlement but the group says is now at risk.

EJ groups have repeatedly charged that Cal/EPA and DTSC are violating the terms of a landmark 2016 civil rights legal settlement regarding Kettleman City that in part calls for more stringent hazardous waste permitting requirements, which equity advocates say should help ensure all terms of the pact are fully implemented.

The settlement resolved a Title VI civil rights complaint by Greenaction and El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpia with EPA over DTSC's 2014 decision to approve a permit to expand the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill. DTSC and Cal/EPA receive financial assistance from EPA and are thus subject to the provisions of Title VI and EPA's implementing regulations, which aim to ensure that recipients of funds do not engage in discrimination under the rights law.

Angel said the groups at the meeting sought to call the attention of EPA legal staff to the state’s civil rights violations regarding the long expired hazardous waste landfill permits. He said there is yet another federal executive order on environmental justice, questioning whether this one will “have more teeth.”

In addition, he said while he has been working with communities for three decades on environmental issues, there is still no plan from EPA on reducing hazardous waste in EJ communities.

A fourth issue listed in the email relates to EPA’s responsibility to ensure DTSC properly carries out its RCRA delegated authorities. It says EPA has the responsibility to ensure this and to ensure that DTSC “immediately ceases violations of civil rights, and complies with [its] lawful responsibility to properly regulate hazardous waste facilities including conducting proper permit processes.

“It is not the responsibility of community and environmental justice groups to keep raising these issues year after year, decade after decade,” the email says. “We expect USEPA to step up and take action to protect the most vulnerable communities in the state from ongoing environmental racism, injustice, and violations of civil rights.”

The groups’ push to press EPA to take action comes after long-time grievances EJ and community groups have had over California regulators’ handling of hazardous waste cleanup and permitting. A coalition of EJ and community groups last August held a major protest over Cal/EPA and DTSC’s alleged failure to clean up a host of contaminated sites across the state, as part of a longstanding strategy to spur more responsive actions by the agencies.

Santa Susana Cleanup

EJ advocates’ push also comes as DTSC announced May 9 a “major development” aimed at strengthening the cleanup of one of the contaminated sites where environmentalists have said DTSC has been lax in its oversight.

DTSC announced that together with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, it has finalized a framework ensuring that Boeing will clean up radionuclides at the Energy Department’s Santa Susana Field Laboratory near Los Angeles to a stringent standard.

But environmentalists are taking issue with the agreement. “This agreement assures that Boeing will never do a full cleanup, and that it will leave the vast majority of the contamination in place,” Dan Hirsch, president of the environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap, told NBC Los Angeles.

And Caroline Reiser, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s (NRDC) nuclear program, May 10 said that DTSC “agreed with Boeing to redefine the cleanup standard in a manner that NRDC and its colleagues believe weakens what will ultimately be the cleanup requirements at the site, thus leaving the majority of the contaminated soil not cleaned up, and local and future residents at permanent risk to exposure.”

“It’s a complicated matter and DTSC disputes that it has fundamentally weakened what will be required. We are unpersuaded at this time and will use every opportunity to have DTSC address this claim going forward,” she added. -- Suzanne Yohannan (syohannan@iwpnews.com)

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