Federal officials have ordered operators of the Chiquita Canyon landfill to take immediate action to protect human health and the environment, saying the burning Castaic facility poses an imminent danger to nearby communities due to noxious odors and hazardous liquid waste.

The action taken Thursday by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency comes amid growing calls to close the facility.

“This order reflects EPA’s commitment to ensuring that landfill operators mitigate noxious odors and comply with federal law to prevent public exposure to hazardous waste.” said EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Martha Guzmán. “Today’s order is the result of local, state and federal collaboration to better protect the health of nearby residents as well as the surrounding environment.”

The source of the growing crisis is a heat-generating chemical reaction that likely began deep in the landfill in May 2022. The extreme heat and rising pressure inside the landfill have caused very hot, contaminated water to spill onto the surface or occasionally erupt. like a geyser.

This contaminated water contained cancer-causing benzene above federal standards, making it a hazardous liquid waste, according to environmental regulators. Authorities have also expressed concern that toxic fumes are reaching neighboring communities and that contaminated water has been dumped into nearby waterways due to heavy rains.

The landfill operator, Waste Connections Inc., says many of the EPA’s directives are already in the process of being implemented.

Although tests showed benzene levels above federal standards as early as August, the landfill continued sending trucks to two facilities that are not authorized to handle hazardous waste, according to the EPA. In late January, landfill officials informed the facilities — Avalon Premium Tank Cleaning in the West Rancho Dominguez neighborhood of Los Angeles County and Patriot Environmental Services in Orange — that the contaminated water contained “somewhat elevated” levels of benzene.

Additionally, the landfill acknowledged that some of this chemical-laden water produced enough flammable vapor to be flammable.

In addition to the EPA’s action, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has issued multiple notices of violation regarding landfill disposal of hazardous waste.

Chiquita Canyon officials have argued that the elevated levels of benzene found in some water samples are not representative of the larger amount of liquid the company is trying to extract and transport.

As landfill operators struggle to control the chemical reaction, they acknowledge that the amount of contaminated water leaking from the facility has increased from about 20,000 gallons per day to 200,000 gallons per day, according to landfill officials.

Residents surrounding the facility have filed more than 7,000 complaints about noxious odors over the past year.

On Thursday, dozens of disgruntled residents gathered at Hasley Canyon Park in Castaic, where recent air sampling detected a concentration of benzene more than eight times the state’s short-term health limit. The park is located next to Live Oak Elementary School, where school staff began giving students the option of sitting inside instead of playing outside during recess.

Among the protesters were California Assemblymembers Chris Holden and Pilar Schiavo. They were among several lawmakers who sent a letter to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, asking for greater state oversight and accountability.

“At best, it would appear that landfill operators only act when forced to do so by authorities and regulators,” Holden said. “The operators of the Chiquita Canyon landfill have achieved inadequate results in addressing alarming concerns about the public nuisance they are causing. This is a public health crisis caused by them. “It requires a permanent solution that provides immediate relief to affected communities and their families.”

Recently, Citizens for the Closure of Chiquita Canyon, a Val Verde-based nonprofit, sued Los Angeles County, demanding that the permit be revoked and requesting an immediate cessation of waste removal activities. The landfill, the second largest in Los Angeles County, accepts approximately 7,000 to 8,000 tons of trash per day.

Christina Orellana, a member of a separate class action lawsuit against the landfill and the county who also lives in Val Verde, said the odors from the landfill have given her family members headaches and made it difficult for them to breathe. It has been especially difficult for her daughter, who can no longer play outside, she said.

“She knows in the mornings where she needs to run to the car to avoid exposure,” Orellana said. “She cries because she can’t play outside. She can’t get on the trampoline or skate. She, too, cannot escape the physical and mental impacts that this crisis has caused. … The county is failing to protect our health and quality of life by allowing the Chiquita Canyon landfill to remain open.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who represents the area, wrote a letter asking the landfill to provide funds to relocate residents who want to move temporarily until the problem is resolved. However, Barger has expressed her doubts about closing the site.

“The county cannot unilaterally close the landfill without justification,” Barger said in a statement Thursday. “Odors do not originate from active parts of the landfill and since the landfill operator is actively working to reduce them, closing the Chiquita Canyon landfill would have no effect on decreasing or eliminating odors.”

John Perkey, vice president of Waste Connections, attended a community meeting on Feb. 13 and said the landfill was in the process of putting together a program to distribute funds that nearby residents could spend to relocate or make home improvements to reduce waste. smells.

But the thought of moving is unsettling for longtime residents, including Amber Elton, who has lived in Val Verde for more than 30 years.

“They would have to provide us with a similar housing situation,” he said. “We can’t move into a motel room with our kids and dogs and ask ourselves to live that way. I mean, these are our homes.”

By Sam