Originally published July 5, 2018 at 12:00a.m., updated July 5, 2018 at 01:10p.m.
If you’re going to dance with the devil, it might help to know what he looks like. I say this having almost collided with Scott Pruitt last Thursday — who just resigned today after reigning as the most scandal-plagued Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) czar in the agency’s history — and not even recognizing him. Pruitt made a surprise appearance at last week’s ceremonial gala held at the Casmalia toxic dump site that bobs ominously atop gently sloping hillsides. In other words, I was at Frankenstein’s castle. Unfortunately, though, the monster is far from dead.
Imagine 5.6 billion pounds of the nastiest solid and liquid toxic waste known to humanity scattered over 252 acres. Casmalia’s owners abandoned ship back in 1989, leaving an incomprehensible mess for the EPA to clean up. In 2001, the EPA declared it a Superfund site and has since incarcerated every drop of rain that’s fallen lest it “contaminate” adjoining properties. This past week, Pruitt showed up to sign a long-awaited final action plan for Casmalia, known by the phallic-sounding acronym ROD (record of decision). When Pruitt speaks of this plan, the words “immediate” and “intense” are always close by.
Thursday’s signing ceremony was a coming-out party for former Santa Barbara county supervisor Mike Stoker, who was sworn in six weeks ago as the EPA’s new West Coast regional director. But Pruitt wound up stealing Stoker’s show. How could he not? The day before, Pruitt had been publicly accused of “ratf*cking” a former aide because she testified he’d instructed her to “procure” a used mattress from Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. (He was also the subject of a baker's dozen of official investigations into a host of ethical scandals that seemed as petty as they were embarrassing.) The guy I saw walking around didn’t seem the sort of guy to engage in nonconsensual biblical relations, rodent-style. He also didn't seem as if he had a trouble in the world. He shook a lot of hands. He smiled a lot. He seemed totally at ease.
And why not? There was zero risk of political ambush by the environmental opposition, upset perhaps by his relentless assault on the EPA’s core mission: environmental protection. It was a sunny day with a cool breeze. Pruitt was safely behind a 12-foot-high chain-link fence, shut tight and topped with barbed wire. Out front, a uniformed security guard screened guests. Parked nearby was a flotilla of bright white SUVs, notably devoid of dust or water spots. Not surprisingly, Pruitt would not answer questions. And he left early. But in that moment — in the cocoon of Casmalia — Pruitt could play one of the good guys. Perversely — in that moment, in that place — he might actually have been one.
Back in the ’80s, when nearby residents started expressing alarm about the industrial stench emanating from Casmalia — triggering headaches, bloody noses, breathing problems, forgetfulness, and stillbirths — state and county health and environmental officers insisted they were imagining things. They must be crazy. Meanwhile, dump owner Ken Hunter was allowed to continue shooting cascading fountains of liquefied toxic wastes out of his toxic storage ponds and into the air. A news photographer told me that he had once been soaked by one of these fountains when the wind shifted. His shoes, brand-new, stunk beyond redemption and had to be tossed along with his clothes when his girlfriend refused to put them in the washing machine. For two days, he was too sick to work. He called Hunter, who insisted, “You just have the flu.” He asked what chemicals were in the pond. Hunter didn’t say.
What about the groundwater under the dump? Hunter’s experts insisted the ground was geologically bulletproof. Nothing could possibly get past the multiple layers of thick, impermeable layers of clay. Until one day, hundreds of thousands of barrels of liquefied toxics — carcinogenic and mutagenic chemicals — penetrated the impermeable. They’d gotten into the groundwater basin and moved all over, though, thankfully, never off-site. According to a recent EPA report, “No cleanup technologies can effectively remove the wide range of contaminants in this type of setting,” even if they pumped the hell out of the aquifer for “several thousand years.” That’s why it will cost $4.1 million a year forever to “operate and maintain.” And that’s after Casmalia has been rendered safe enough to allow raindrops to run off un-impounded. According to Stoker, that could take five to six years. As a county supervisor, Stoker remembers making the motion to declare Casmalia a Superfund site. He also remembers coming to community meetings where people were throwing chairs at each other. People get mad when they’re lied to. I’m hoping these memories stay with him.
In 1999, the EPA estimated final cleanup would cost $285 million. Today, that amount has dropped considerably, but no precise estimate is available. To date, the EPA has collected $120 million from Casmalia’s so-called responsible parties, guys like Hunter and companies that dumped their industrial unmentionables there. It’s irresistible to cast Hunter as the villain; he was so arrogant and disdainful in public. But it misses the point. It was really the EPA’s fault.
When Hunter started Casmalia in 1972, it was only a 60-acre dump. It handled oil field waste. In 1980, the EPA allowed Hunter to expand to 252 acres. It also allowed him to accept materials so deadly they make cyanide look like candy. Not one of Hunter’s six landfills was lined. Yet they let him do it. Worse, they let him do it on the strength of only an “interim permit.”
Are Pruitt and Stoker using Superfund cleanup as “good-guy” eyewash? Probably. Who cares? They’re the devils we need to dance with. Stoker’s local roots will help. But while Pruitt laid waste to the regulatory infrastructure that provided any semblance of environmental protection, he should have kept in mind how many new Superfund sites he was creating along the way. That’s a whole lot of devils with whom we’re gonna have to dance.