Feds sue local governments to pay for landfill cleanup
Garbage found a home at the old Meyers landfill; now the federal government wants the city and county to pay cleanup costs for the leaking waste pile.
A lawsuit filed by the U.S. Department of Justice says El Dorado County and the city of South Lake Tahoe should pay for groundwater treatment at the site that could cost more than $10 million.
A countersuit filed by the county argues that the bill should go to businesses and agencies that dumped at the site, including South Tahoe Refuse, South Shore supermarkets and casinos.
Mounds of compacted waste have created volatile organic compounds inside the landfill. One of them is vinyl chloride, a carcinogen. It and other compounds have leeched from the landfill and spread into groundwater. Testing last year discovered a plume of groundwater contaminated with vinyl chloride had moved 1,100 feet north of the landfill toward Saxon Creek.
Evaluation of the landfill, a 24-acre chunk of land east of the intersection of Elks Club Drive and Pioneer Trail, began in 1997. Since then, about $500,000 has been spent to install monitoring wells and a single-pump groundwater treatment system.
The treatment system sucks contaminated water from the site, runs it through a filter and pumps it back into the ground. It was installed to hinder movement of the plume until a complete treatment system is chosen and in place.
The land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. The county operated a landfill there from 1955 to 1971 with a “special use” permit issued by the Forest Service .
Jerry DeGraff, a Forest Service employee leading the cleanup effort, said the federal government is required by CERCLA to attempt to recoup money from responsible parties. CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, also knows as Superfund, is a trust created in 1980 to help clean up polluted sites around the nation.
DeGraff said responsible parties are defined as: an owner of the site, an operator of the site, a transporter of waste or someone who generates it.
“Entities like counties and cities pay for insurance to cover these kinds of liabilities,” he said. “Two years ago, the state of California said insurance companies don’t have to come forward unless we file a lawsuit.”
DeGraff said the lawsuit is a necessary legal procedure that is not indicative of the cooperative relationship between the Forest Service, city and county since work began on the site.
“They have been nothing but forthcoming,” he said. “Several years ago they put forward a lot of funding to determine the full nature of the problem.”
But why was a landfill allowed on Forest Service land anyhow?
“It was permitted years ago and in those days it was typically a common occurrence,” said Maribeth Gustafson, forest supervisor for the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “We didn’t know what we know today about the consequences of landfills. Especially in rural communities it was fairly common to use public lands for landfills or other needs.”
Thomas Vandenburg, an attorney based in Los Angeles, hired to represent the county, released a statement Wednesday saying the Forest Service and other parties “arranged” for the disposal of the waste at the site and therefore should be liable for cleanup costs.
“El Dorado County is interested in making sure that the Meyers Landfill Site is fully investigated and cleaned up efficiently, and is interested in making sure that all responsible parties contribute to the cost of that cleanup,” wrote Vandenburg.
The county filed suit against about 30 parties after examining old records from the landfill. Three of the businesses or agencies — South Tahoe Refuse, Safeway and Lake Tahoe Unified School District — recently received a copy of the lawsuit and spokespersons said they needed more time to evaluate it before commenting.
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