California loves to highlight its strong economy and leadership on environmental issues. But California has a dirty secret: it is also a leader in the export of hazardous waste. I would not expect to see the Legislature touting this fact anytime soon though.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) estimates that California generates about 1.7 million tons of hazardous waste each year on average. This includes used motor oil, paint, batteries, solar panels, electronic waste, fluorescent bulbs, cleaners, pesticides, medicines, and sharps, just to name a few. But recent devastating wildfires have exacerbated the amount of hazardous waste generated in California. The devastating Camp, Woolsey, and Hill fires have generated approximately 8-10 million tons of toxic rubble, soil and concrete. This toxic waste is treated, stored and disposed of by hazardous waste facilities that are required to obtain a hazardous waste permit from DTSC in order to operate. However, these facilities only continue to treat, store and dispose all of our hazardous waste if the facility can generate a profit from waste management. If operational costs exceed revenues, these facilities inevitably will close, just as they have been over the past decade at alarming rates. Any hazardous waste not processed in-state is exported to other states and nations, where environmental protocols are either nonexistent or far less stringent. This is because California regulates many substances as hazardous waste that are not regulated as such under federal laws. Accordingly, what we treat as hazardous waste is classified in many other states simply as garbage.
Existing laws and regulations passed in the last decade have substantially increased the costs and time to acquire a permit to operate a hazardous waste facility in California. In turn, this has pushed many facilities in California to simply close down. The numbers bear this out. In 2006, California had 137 permitted hazardous waste facilities in operation. Five years later, only 123 permitted facilities remained. The closure of 14 facilities between 2006 to 2011 nearly doubled the amount of hazardous waste shipped out of California. Approximately 540,000 tons of the 1.7 million tons of hazardous waste generated annually was shipped out of California to other states or nations in 2011.
The amount of hazardous waste exported by California in 2011 is almost certainly under representative of the amount of hazardous waste exported in 2018. That is because today, only 80 permitted hazardous waste facilities remain — a decrease of 43 facilities since 2011. California is now forced to rely on 31 states to receive the hazardous waste we generate in California. By shipping our hazardous wastes out of state, we not only subject our waste to less stringent environmental laws and regulations, we also significantly increase the amount of greenhouse gases released from transportation of this waste to other states.
DTSC’s recently proposed regulations pursuant to SB 673 (2015) will only further exacerbate the out of control permitting costs and the rapid closure of California hazardous waste facilities. As more facilities close due to this flawed regulatory process, California will be left unable to manage its own hazardous waste. This will lead to further exports of hazardous waste to states or countries with less protective environmental standards and will increase the likelihood of improper and illegal disposal of hazardous waste in trash cans, storm drains, landfills, and waterways, which may disproportionately affect the very disadvantaged communities SB 673 aimed to protect. Californians, including the Legislature, should support the treating, storing and disposing of hazardous waste generated in California in-state, where environmental protection protocols are more rigid than in other states and other countries. Stay tuned as DTSC’s rulemaking process for SB 673 unfolds in 2019.