The state agency charged with protecting Californians from most polluters is allowing companies to dump toxic waste and put lives at risk, an NBC4 I-Team Investigation reveals.
Residents across California tell the I-Team they are getting cancer and other illnesses, because of toxic waste dumped in their water and soil.
The I-Team’s investigation exposes weak regulation by a state agency you’ve probably never heard of: the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), whose job is to make sure most polluters clean up the messes they make.
Local news from across Southern California
Read: Full "Golden Wasteland" Report (PDF)
"If we were doing what we were supposed to be doing, we would be doing much more enforcement, and we wouldn’t let some of these industries get away literally with murder,” said one insider about the DTSC.
A hazardous-waste recycling plant in suburban LA County was ordered in the 1990s to clean up hexavalent chromium in the water beneath the facility, but hasn’t done it.
Sante Fe Springs resident Shirley White, who lives near the Phibro-Tech plant, said: "I don’t know if this is the cause, but there are five members of my family, and four of us have ended up with cancer."
According to government documents obtained by the I-Team, there is a stew of toxic chemicals underneath the plant, including hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen at the heart of the movie "Erin Brokovich."
Consumer advocate Liza Tucker authorities the "Golden Wasteland" report, which criticizes the DTSC for allowing several companies – including Phibro-Tech – to avoid cleaning up their mess.
"It has let companies poison the environment for the last twenty years and sat on its hands," Tucker said.
"This agency is falling down on the job."
Tucker’s report cites Phibro-Tech as just one example. In the 1990s, the DTSC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered the plant to remove toxic chemicals from the groundwater around its plant. But the full cleanup still has not begun.
"The expectation the public has to be protected is not being served," another insider said.
Insiders said the agency often fails to take strong enough action against polluters, such as issuing hefty fines or shutting the plants down.
In a letter to NBC4, Phibro-Tech said it did not cause the site’s hexavalent chromium contamination – that was there before Phibro-Teach arrived – but it is nonetheless cleaning it up.
Some DTSC insiders said the plant is to blame for the contimation and should’ve cleaned up the water by now.
"We have the power to pull the permits," the insider said. "We can revoke the permits."
But DTSC has allowed Phibro-Tech to operate on a permit that expired 16 years ago, even though the company applied for a renewal.
And outside a recent town hall meeting, residents near the plant demanded to know why.
"I mean, drive down the street with an expired license and see what happens to you," White said.
The NBC4 I-Team questioned DTSC officials about that expired permit.
"That’s a really good question," said spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe.
"I can’t tell you why that happened. I wasn’t here 15 years ago," she added.
Debbie Raphael, the head of DTSC, has declined requests for comment.
Phibro-Tech is not the only company allowed to operate on an expired permit. The NBC4 I-Team obtained a letter from the head of the DTSC admitting that there are 22 hazardous-waste companies working with outdated permits.
The letter notes that another state agency will soon be performing a review of the permitting process for companies that handle toxic waste.