EPA Chief Pruitt Takes Santa Barbara by Surprise

Signs Final Document for Superfund Cleanup at Casmalia Toxic Dump

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt (pictured) visited Casmalia Resources Superfund Site with EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Mike Stoker to announce a final cleanup plan for contaminated soil and groundwater estimated to take five years and cost approximately $60 million. (June 28, 2018).

Paul Wellman

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt (pictured) visited Casmalia Resources Superfund Site with EPA Pacific Southwest Regional Administrator Mike Stoker to announce a final cleanup plan for contaminated soil and groundwater estimated to take five years and cost approximately $60 million. (June 28, 2018).

Looking crisp, brisk, and anything but embattled, EPA Chief Scott Pruitt — dogged by persistent scandals — made a surprise visit to Santa Barbara County on Thursday morning for a ceremonial signing of final remediation plans for the Casmalia Resources toxic dump site located 15 minutes out of Santa Maria. Pruitt was accompanied by Mike Stoker, director for the EPA's Pacific Southwest region. Stoker, a former Santa Barbara county supervisor and well-known player in local Republican circles for the past 30 years, made the motion back in 1991 when the county asked the EPA to designate the Casmalia toxic dump — final resting place for 5.6 billion pounds of toxic wastes — a Superfund cleanup site.

Since his appointment by Donald Trump, Pruitt has pushed to accelerate action on the nation’s hundreds of superfund sites. In December, Pruitt released a list of top 21 Superfund Sites slated for special attention. Shortly thereafter, he added Casmalia as number 22. Not long after that, news leaked out that Stoker’s nomination as new regional chief was all but a done deal.

Thursday’s ceremonial action — held under a large tent protecting those underneath from blazing sunshine — was the final legal formality required to formalize the final cleanup plan for the 252-acre site. The signing — technically known as the Record of Decision — defines the parameters of the cleanup plan and sets in motion a series of contracts to spend $60 million to cap and cover the existing toxic storage facilities. That work is expected to take five to six years. When done, the site will require perpetual monitoring to ensure that highly hazardous materials and their remnants do not migrate offsite via underground aquifers. That work is estimated to cost $4.1 million a year.

Pruitt has been under steady fire for the past several months — both for his aggressive hostility to regulatory protections championed by environmentalists as well as a steady stream of ethical breaches. (His aides were assigned to help his wife secure a Chick-fil-A franchise; another aide had been assigned to get a used mattress from a Trump-owned hotel.) Yet Pruitt has managed to confound those predicting his political demise and remained in power. Little surprise Pruitt is so famously gun shy about environmental protestors and critics. He could not have selected a safer, more isolated location than the Casmalia Resources dump, shut down in 1989 amid an outcry of over health impacts to downstream residents. The Casmalia dump is located amid expansively rolling hillsides southwest of Santa Maria and behind a security gate manned by a uniformed security guard.

Pruitt’s comments were short and sweet. “Adding the Casmalia site,” he said, “demonstrates my commitment to ensure Superfund sites are addressed as quickly and as safely as possible.” Pruitt added that “leadership and direction” are needed to get the job done and “get answers for the communities they’re around.” For Pruitt, regarded by his environmental critics as all but the Antichrist, Thursday morning was a moment he could fly the flag of environmental accomplishment. “Today is a celebration,” he proclaimed.

Pruitt took no questions from the small gathering of reporters, shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the three county supervisors present — Steve Lavagnino, Joan Hartmann, and Peter Adam — and then quickly left. It was Stoker who remained and took questions from reporters for about 15 minutes. Aside from some momentary confusion between Stoker and Pruitt as to what the date was during the signing, the event was utterly without incident. (Stoker confessed a certain disorientation, having slept in his own bed only five times, he said, during his first six weeks on the job.)

Thursday was really Stoker’s coming-out ceremony as the EPA’s new Pacific Southwest regional boss since he was sworn in six weeks ago. For Stoker — frequently lambasted for his work for one of the most heavily fined oil companies in California: Greka — Thursday was also a moment in which he could flex. As former 5th District supervisor, he recalled making the motion to have Casmalia declared a Superfund site. “We operated under the false pretenses that there was impermeable clay underneath the site,” he recalled. “When we got information that suggested otherwise, it was 'Houston we have a problem,’ and we pulled a 180.” By that Stoker meant that county officials — who had strongly supported Casmalia’s operations in the face of community opposition — moved to shut the site down after discovering that the geology underneath the site was not as impermeable as they’d been repeatedly assured. In fact, contaminants found their way through cracks and fissures in the subsoil clay and migrated about 100 meters down and laterally. Although no contaminants migrated beyond the boundaries of the 252-acre property, they did get beyond the perimeter of the permitted area.

That revelation proved to be a political game changer for Casmalia. Prior to that, only one supervisor — Stoker’s predecessor on the board, Toru Miyoshi — had pitched a fit about toxic mists and smells that downstream residents complained was causing nosebleeds, headaches, miscarriages, and worse. County and state health officials initially dismissed such concerns as “olfactory hallucinations.” Once the groundwater risks became an issue, those concerns were taken more seriously. About the same time, it came out that dump operators failed to set aside as much money as they were required for closure, cleanup, and containment.

Nearby residents, Stoker recalled, felt abandoned by their elected officials. They were terrified by the health consequences of continued exposure. Those who owned homes felt especially trapped. No one would buy their homes, and they couldn’t afford to move. “I remember going to workshops at that time, and people were throwing chairs at each other,” Stoker recalled. “It was pretty nasty.”

Stoker said when the site is fully remediated, rain will be allowed to fall on the site without being trapped, caught and impounded, as has been the case the past 25 years. For the first time, it will be allowed to flow, unimpeded, wherever the rise and fall of the land dictates.

Although Congressmember Salud Carbajal did not attend Thursday’s event, he had met with Stoker the day before in Washington, D.C. A liberal Democrat and avid critic of Trump, Carbajal has expressed criticism of Stoker’s appointment in the past and has been unstinting in his condemnation of Pruitt. Even so, he expressed grudging appreciation for the attention Santa Barbara’s only Superfund site was getting. “It’s about time, but people should not be confused they made this happen. This work has been taking place for years now,” he said. “The merry-go-round just happened to stop now.”

Stoker, now famous for originating the “Lock ‘er up” chant directed against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention, was generous with his praise for Pruitt, calling him "a great leader to work with who is steering the ship right.”