IF YOU’RE NOT INSANE, YOU’RE NOT LISTENING: The half-life of cesium is allegedly 30 years. The half-life of plutonium-239 is said to be 24,360 years, though admittedly, no one’s been around long enough to actually clock it. But we do know with absolute certainty that the half-life of stupidity is forever. With all the talk about meltdowns in Japan — and shutdowns in Washington, D.C. — I was gratified to receive a press release from the Environmental Protection Agency this week, reminding me that in this regard, even Santa Barbara — alleged birthplace of the environmental movement — is far from immune. The EPA was announcing it had just received $1.2 million from 49 smaller toxic-waste generators to help tidy up Santa Barbara County’s one and only Superfund cleanup site, located about 10 miles outside of Santa Maria at the former toxic dump formerly known as Casmalia Resources. I’m betting that most people here either forgot — or never knew — that Santa Barbara has a Priority I Superfund cleanup site, let alone that it ever had a toxic-waste dump. But between 1973 and 1989, Casmalia Resources was very big business, taking in 5.6-billion pounds of every mutagenic, carcinogenic compound known to industry, agriculture, and all the necessary conveniences of modern life. About the only stuff Casmalia wouldn’t accept either glowed in the dark or went ka-boom when provoked. It was the Pelican Bay for the nastiest of the nasty, the ultimate lock-down for the baddest of the bad. Or so we thought.
It turns out that toxic waste stored at the plant’s 252 acres of otherwise bucolic beauty was seeping into the groundwater basin underneath. Even worse, these contaminants were then “migrating” beyond the borders of the facility. This, we had been assured by an army of PhDs hired by Casmalia’s owner Kenneth Hunter, was simply physically impossible. It defied the laws of geology. The dump sat on top of a clay-stone rock formation 900-1,200 feet thick. Nothing, the experts assured us with absolute infallibility, could get through. At public hearings on the toxic dump, this fact was recited, ad nauseum, as if Moses revealed it when bringing down the Ten Commandments. Only a solemn-faced and slightly built sign painter named Les Conrad — backed by a rag-tag band of environmental hysterics, Luddites, trailer trash, Chicken Littles, and knee-jerk obstructionists — dared say otherwise. While Conrad’s specific critique has yet to be proved correct, all the pseudo science upon which the dump’s existence was premised has been proved excruciatingly wrong. It’s easy to say such things as, “Hindsight is always 20-20.” But that assumes the people in charge bothered to pay attention back when it might have mattered. When the dump first started in 1973, it was just 60 acres of rolling hillside, set aside to bury industrial refuse generated by area oil operations. But over time, Hunter and his partners — a who’s-who of area fat cats and good old boys — realized the real money was to be made in toxic disposal. In 1980, the EPA issued Hunter an interim operating permit. On the strength of that, he expanded his operations to 252 acres. Hunter made money. His partners made money. And the County of Santa Barbara got a hefty slice, too.
When locals started complaining about chronic headaches, bloody noses, memory loss, and foul odors, county health officials initially said they were just imagining things. Given that the county’s chief health officer at the time had such startling bad breath that reporters knew to stay safely down-wind, maybe he was impervious to the noxious winds blowing off the site. Over time, the dump became a political hot potato, and county officials were soon outdoing one another to express shock and outrage. But by then, it was too late. It turns out it’s a whole lot easier to open a toxic dump than it is to close one down. And much cheaper, too.
Today, the EPA estimates it will take $284 million to clean and cap Casmalia. Here we are, 22 years after Casmalia was ordered closed, and to date, the EPA has only secured $112 million of the funds needed to get the job done. They’ve raised that by going after the poor schmucks who thought at the time they were dumping their toxic trash at a reputable facility. As for Hunter, a man of contemptuous equanimity, he just walked away from his mess. Eventually, the feds managed to get him to pay $7 million — but then after lengthy litigation. And he paid the townspeople of Casmalia $10 million to make their lawsuit go away.
Today, Casmalia is more famous for the Hitching Post restaurant there. But the toxic dump itself still remains sufficiently hazardous that not a single drop of rain that hits the ground can be allowed to run offsite. When one inch of rain translates to 5 million gallons, you can imagine what an engineering nightmare that can be. To clean up the mess, the ground basin underneath the dump had to be pumped out and the water treated. With wonderful perversity, red-legged frogs began showing up at the site after it was shut down. Not mutants, but definitely bigger than normal. And they’ve stayed, establishing enduring colonies. Initially, the authorities wanted to kill them off; if a single rain drop is contaminated, what about an entire frog? What if one got offsite — as they are prone to do — and were eaten by some unsuspecting bird of prey? But because red-legged frogs are on the federal endangered species list, the Casmalia colonies could be exterminated only with immense regulatory difficulty. To minimize this problem, the feds ordered the creation of a brand new artificial wetland onsite, so tricked out that no frog in his or her right mind would dream of roaming. I’m hoping that internationally acclaimed author and Montecito resident T.C. Boyle — famous for wearing red high-tops even in the shower — will get around to chronicling this saga soon.
I mention all this because it’s a lot easier to keep the genie in the bottle than to get it back in. I mention it because anyone who seeks to win an argument by citing the “PhD” at the end of his or her name is not to be believed. And I mention it because similarly well-endowed experts assured us it was safe to build the nuclear power plant at Avila Beach even though it’s spitting distance from two earthquake fault lines. If ignorance of the law is no excuse, what about stupidity?