California has one of the strictest policies in the nation when it comes to disposing of hazardous materials. Every rail car and truck load of hazardous waste is tracked as it changes hands from the generator, to the hauler, and is finally received at the disposal facility. The waste’s journey from cradle to grave is kept track of through the use of paper manifests, copies of which are sent to the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Ideally, this system allows the state to keep tabs on companies that violate state regulations regarding hazardous waste treatment. However, the system in its current form has more than just a few problems. For starters, the entire system relies on pen and paper forms to keep track of waste shipments between generators and disposal facilities. A total of six copies are produced using a typewriter and carbonless copies, the bottom of which (and the hardest to read) is kept by the waste generator. The other five copies are sent off with the hauler. Eventually, a copy is sent by the disposal facility to the Department of Toxic Substances Control after the shipment has arrived and has been verified to be carrying the correct weight and substance.

Improperly disposed of industrial drums containing hazardous wastes.

The system’s dependence on paper records has lead to several oversights and mistakes as whole shipments have simply vanished from the system. In one case, a warehouse was discovered to contain barrels of benzene originating from an aluminum manufacturing company that paid a small time hauler to dispose of the chemicals. Of course, no manifest was ever created by the generator, which allowed the hauler to simply dump the barrels at the abandoned warehouse. And the only way the state became aware of the warehouse was from an anonymous tip to the EPA.

In perhaps the biggest oversight by the state, the small town of Mecca, CA was subjected to several bouts of sickness from a nearby soil recycling plant that had been accepting hazardous waste for over seven years. Despite having no license to accept hazardous waste, the facility allowed over 160,000 tons of metal sludge, empty pesticide cans, and contaminated construction debris to be dumped in with regular uncontaminated soils. This activity came to light only after residents began experiencing a variety of symptoms, including nausea and headaches, caused by a noxious odor emanating from the plant.

Since then, the plant has been barred from accepting hazardous waste and businesses have been banned from sending waste to Mecca. In the immediate aftermath, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has begun reviewing state permits for every disposal facility in the state, and has vowed to improve its tracking system. The EPA is currently developing a new electronic shipping system that will allow the state to monitor hazardous waste shipments remotely in a way that replicates the tracking technology used by companies such as UPS and FedEX.

It is hoped that by eliminating the pen and paper system, and cracking down on regulators who overlook violations, the state can revive the reputation of a waste disposal system that was once upheld as the national standard.

Full story available at the LA Times.