Local residents object to a renewed permit for a hazardous waste facility

California regulators could soon issue a new permit for a hazardous waste treatment facility in Santa Fe Springs, even as they face the same company in court over alleged violations.

The impending decision has alarmed environmental and community groups, who argue that the Department of Toxic Substances Control should reject Phibro-Tech for a renewal of its permit after a history of violating state rules.

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Santa Fe Springs' location is near the unincorporated area of ​​Los Nietos, a largely Latino neighborhood in Los Angeles County that is among the most pollution-stricken communities in the state. According to the state agency, the hazardous waste treatment facility is about 550 feet from the nearest homes.

The Phibro-Tech facility had dozens of violations over the past decade, according to a state analysis of its regulatory record. Last year, DTSC sued the company, saying state inspectors who checked the site before the COVID-19 pandemic found leaking containers and other violations.

But months before the company was charged, staff at the same agency told concerned neighbors that they had tentatively decided to renew the permit for the Santa Fe Springs facility. Serious violations have declined in recent years, Department of Toxic Substances Control representatives say, and the facility did not pose a significant threat to the neighborhood.

State officials said they would make a final decision after weighing public comments.

But as it stands, “we have determined that based on all available information – including their compliance history and their recent track record of improving compliance – it is appropriate to approve the permit,” said the supervising hazardous materials engineer, Phil Blum, during a meeting July meeting.

The Santa Fe Springs plant takes in hazardous waste and processes it into chemicals and metals such as copper, which can then be used in electronics and other industries. Phibro-Tech said it “recycles waste that would otherwise have to be landfilled or injected into a deep well,” yielding copper without the damage of mining.

The company has been operating under an expired permit since 1996 – longer than any other hazardous waste facility in California, according to a recent lawsuit by the company. below California rulesSuch facilities with an expired permit can continue to operate if they have submitted an application for a new one in time.

The agency said one reason the permitting process for Phibro-Tech had taken so many years was “to allow time for environmental sampling and engineering reviews” that would inform the decision. In the meantime, DTSC said it had “continued to exercise its enforcement authority,” including by requiring the cleanup of historic pollution.

a state overview found that the Santa Fe Springs facility had had more than 20 violations in the past decade. Last year, the state rated its compliance history as the eighth worst among 74 hazardous waste facilities in the state, based on a scoring system that tracks violations.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn has done just that publicly called for the facility to block “Until it can come into compliance with the law,” it says it poses too much of a threat to the community.

DTSC “has a mandate to protect the public,” said Jaime Sanchez, a nearby resident and member of the local group Neighbors Against Phibro Tech. “But instead of protecting the public, they have protected this industry… at the expense of the health, safety and well-being of the affected communities.”

Phibro-Tech said the state had rated its compliance as “conditionally acceptable,” with a score just above the cutoff for “acceptable.” It said its performance has improved dramatically in recent years and that Hahn's objections are “based on a misunderstanding of the plant and its current operations.”

DTSC officials told residents that the new permit would include conditions to protect nearby communities, including maintaining gas detection sensors in critical areas.

“The big story here is that DTSC has reviewed the facility's operations in detail. We need extensive changes to the way the activities will be conducted under a new permit. And we believe this demonstrates that the facility can be operated safely,” Blum said Meeting 2022.

The homes in the foreground of this overhead image are located close to industrial businesses, including a hazardous waste facility.

Part of the Los Nietos residential area, seen at the bottom of this image, is across a street and on an empty lot owned by Phibro-Tech, which processes hazardous waste.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Byron Chan, a senior attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law nonprofit, argued that the agency should not issue a new permit to “a facility that has demonstrated a lack of interest in compliance.” He said it seemed like fines had become the “cost of doing business” for Phibro-Tech, calling it “an ongoing pattern of irresponsibility.”

“You'll see a pattern of breaking the law, paying a fine and then breaking the law again,” he said.

Five years ago, the agency announced that the company had to pay $495,000 in fines for violations including storing hazardous waste outside permitted areas. Earthjustice also cited past incidents at the Santa Fe Springs facility ammonia And hydrochloric acid were released on site and employees Has been burned with acid.

Phibro-Tech said in a statement that the chemical emissions cited by the environmental group had not threatened the community and that it had adjusted its operations to prevent their recurrence. “If a violation is identified,” the company said, “we take immediate action to correct it as quickly as possible.”

In its lawsuit in September, DTSC alleged that the company broke the law by storing hazardous waste in leaking containers, one of several violations found by inspectors who visited the plant in 2019.

It also accused Phibro-Tech of failing to act immediately dismantle a basin where hazardous waste was processed in recent decades. (The Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, another group opposing a new permit for the facility, argued that failure to do so increases the risk of spreading pollutants.)

Phibro-Tech said many of the alleged violations resulted from the agency's shifting positions. The company said the decades-old permit no longer reflects how DTSC interprets when equipment handles waste rather than “product,” and that the ambiguity has led to citations for “operating old equipment.”

It also disputed state claims about leaking containers and the required timeline for closing the basin, which it said was now complete.

All in all, the allegations are “not relevant to today.” DTSC, in turn, said Phibro-Tech had “returned to compliance” with the violations alleged in the lawsuit.

Chan said the State Department appeared to be relying on “a false standard … that if it didn't comply with the law yesterday but does it today, then that's OK.”

It is “ignoring everything that has happened in the past,” he said.

In a letter opposing a renewal of the permit, Earthjustice said the state agency had failed to conduct the appropriate level of environmental review for the decision. It also complained that the agency had failed to collect information about pollution levels outside the boundaries of the Phibro-Tech facility.

Neighbors have raised concerns about industrial contamination at the site, including with hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen perhaps best known for being targeted by famed activist Erin Brockovich.

“We want to live in a safe environment. … We don't want to worry about our health, safety and well-being [coming] at the expense of a company that makes a profit,” said resident Sanchez.

Phibro-Tech said it had taken responsibility for the contamination caused by a previous operator. DTSC officials said The company's cleanup efforts had reduced hexavalent chromium in soil at the site to safe levels.

DTSC has not identified any “significant health risks resulting from the operation of the facility,” Blum said last year.

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