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Enforcing California's Dirty Dozen

Trash Collection
PET bottles in a trash can (Prague). | Wikicommons
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It’s hard to believe there is a place dirtier than Clean Up America. Just a few blocks east of the L.A. River, the small trash facility that sits at the end of an ally, collected over 22 million pounds of garbage in two years, far more than the 2.8 million pounds they were permitted for.

Clean Up America racked up dozens of written notices, action plans, violations and orders requiring them to remove the mountain of debris at their facility. But owners kept heaping on more and more trash to the pile. The garbage mound grew over 25 feet high when a massive fire broke out in September of 2016 that took the Los Angeles Fire Department six weeks to extinguish.

The facility is one of twelve disposal sites in California that is not in compliance with state minimum standards for waste handling and disposal according to Cal Recycle’s website. Another 79 solid waste facilities and disposal sites have active enforcement orders against them. You can view them here.

The ramifications of the fire at Clean Up America were substantial, including the cost of battling the fire and removing the debris. Another concern was the polluted wastewater that flowed from site as a result of firefighter's efforts to extinguish the flames, as well as the general threat to public safety.

Scroll through the images below to see which waste facilities are in violation of state minimum standards.

In June, the City of Los Angeles secured an injunction against the facility and its owner, Deontay Potter, is now facing 50 criminal charges.

While the incident at Clean Up America could be an extreme circumstance, it may serve as a case study for how difficult it can be for Local Enforcement Agencies to force waste facilities to comply with state minimum standards.

There are over 2,900 waste disposal facilities and sites throughout California, according to state data. They range from some of the largest landfills in America to small processing centers.

The monitoring and enforcement of these waste facilities are primarily carried out by Local Enforcement Agencies, who are responsible for doing most of the inspections and investigations of the sites. In turn, the state oversees the performance of the Local Enforcement Agencies.  

Jason Phillippe, Representative for San Bernardino County Local Enforcement Agency, says Local Enforcement Agencies work with the waste facilities to make sure they are in compliance. Phillippe says when a violation is noted, facilities are generally cooperative in the process of correcting it.

“We explain to them exactly what part of their operation needs to change. We don’t tell them how to operate. They give us a proposal and if we accept that, then they go ahead with the changes,” Phillippe says.

Phillippe says the violations he has seen at the facilities in San Bernardino can be fixed.

“As a health department, we would deal with anything that was an imminent health situation, we would deal with that separately,” Phillippe says.

One of the largest fines issued for a violation was for $1.8 million by the Sacramento Local Enforcement Agency against the 14th Avenue Landfill for failure to properly monitor and fix gas migration issues. The issue was settled for $270,000 in 2014.

Mark Oldfield, Communications Director at the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery says CalRecycle and their partners focus on “compliance assistance” before proceeding with any formal enforcement action that would lead to penalties or other legal remedies.

Oldfield says that often violations are the result of issues that merit attention but they do not necessarily suggest there is a threat to health and safety.

“Violations are fairly common, but that should not be construed as an indication that the operators are intentionally doing something wrong or displaying negligence,” Oldfield says.

“Most violations are corrected in a timely manner after the operator is made aware of them. Owing to early, frequent and constructive engagement with operators, the number of actual enforcement actions taken as a percentage of facilities and participants is relatively small.”

In regards to Clean Up America, Oldfield says, “Anytime a facility ends up on the statewide inventory, this speaks to the severity of the situation.”

Mr. Deontay Potter told KCET he is unable to comment until he consults with legal council. 

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