Santa Barbara County Superfund Site is Not Super Fun

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Image Courtesy of USEPA Environmental-Protection-Agency | Flickr

Sophia Tao

Casmalia Resources, a Superfund site in Santa Barbara county, was recently placed on Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s Emphasis List of sites in need of direct attention on Monday, April 16, according to an EPA news release.

The EPA webpage on the topic explains superfund sites are hazardous waste dump sites in the US designated by the EPA as posing a risk to human health and the environment. They are placed on the National Priorities List (NPL) based on a Hazard Ranking System, which creates a score for the site based on factors such as toxicity of groundwater.  

The Superfund, an informal name for law established by Congress in 1980 as the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, forces the parties responsible (PRP) for contamination to organize cleanup or pay for EPA-led clean up work. Taxes on petroleum and chemical industries initially provided funds when there weren’t enough. However, the amount of money Superfund received began declining early on, especially after the taxes expired in 1995 and weren’t renewed.

Casmalia Resources is a 252-acre former waste management facility that received around 5.6 billion pounds of waste from over 10,000 generators during its years of operation from 1973 to 1989. It accepted all kinds of chemicals and toxic waste, including probable carcinogens and pesticides. Casmalia Resources was placed on the NPL in 2001 after assessments of the site revealed pollution, such as arsenic in surface water, may cause ecological dangers that threaten endangered species in the area.

The town of Casmalia, located slight southwest of Santa Maria in the north of Santa Barbara County, historically struggled to shut down the site — they were unable to prove to the government that the site was causing residents’ health problems. The site was finally shut down after an SB County grand jury reported that the area’s groundwater and air quality was contaminated.

The EPA took over after the site owner died and has collected over $119 million from PRPs since. However, the total cost of complete stabilization, cleanup, and long-term management was estimated to be $284 million, and that was in terms of 1999 USD.

Currently, the site has the migration of contaminants under control, with continuous monitoring to ensure containment. The EPA has also been working with government fish and wildlife services to ensure cleanup strategies are compatible with creating healthy habitat conditions for endangered species in the area.

One potential strategy to achieve this goal is mitigating wetland loss. The wetlands are home to many endangered species; unfortunately, the cleanup process for Casmalia would probably damage the wetlands. Hypothetical alternatives to mitigate this loss were evaluated in a group master’s thesis done at Bren School of Environmental Science and Management in 2002.

Physical construction of cleanup for the entire site remains incomplete. The construction, which includes engineering landfill capping systems, groundwater collection, and treatment systems, is expected to take five years from last December, when the EPA proposed a comprehensive cleanup plan for the site. Costs for construction are expected to be around $60 million.

Difficulties with managing waste materials has contributed to slowing progress. The site has dense nonaqueous phase liquids (DNAPL), an amalgamation of 100 separate chemicals. DNAPL is heavier than water and settles to the bottom of landfills in the site’s many wetlands, making it difficult to extract. EPA officials admitted they will never be able to remove all the DNAPL in the site, estimated to be as much as 100,000 gallons.

Casmalia Resources was recently placed on Administrator Pruitt’s dynamic list of sites targeted for immediate, intense action to help expedite the upcoming cleanup and redevelopment efforts. The list was created in direct response to the Superfund Task Force recommendations, released on July 2017. The task force itself was established by Pruitt in May 2017.

There has been speculation, skepticism, and debate about the criteria by which sites get placed on the list. Pruitt’s critics see the list as a publicity stunt to better his reputation as an administrator “uncommonly hostile” to the EPA’s core mission.

The EPA Superfund website’s Q&A page explains that being placed on the list does not necessarily mean the sites are the largest, most contaminated, or most-prioritized for additional federal funding. Sites that make the list are said to have “critical near-term milestones that would benefit from the Administrator’s direct engagement.” The Administrator’s actions of “direct engagement” are vaguely outlined.

Clearly there are many challenges — legal, financial, or logistical — in resolving the Casmalia Superfund site. And it’s not exactly clear what being placed on the EPA’s Emphasis List will do for the site. However, there is at least some assurance — perhaps now Casmalia will get the attention it deserves.