Toxic Pollutants in California Mudslide Present Cleanup Challenges

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By Adam Allington

A potential environmental emergency is looming as cleanup continues from California’s deadly mudslide: pollution from toxic mud and sludge, some of which is being dumped on local beaches.

“When the mud is 10 feet high on a telephone pole on Danielson Road [in Montecito] and people are still missing, maybe buried in mud ... we have only a few options,” said Tom Fayram, deputy director of public works for Santa Barbara County, responding to concerns about the dumping from a local environmental group.

According to Santa Barbara county, 1,700 cubic yards of mudslide cleanup has been dumped on nearby Goleta Beach and the Carpinteria Salt Marsh Reserve, which protects an estuary supporting many sensitive plant and animal species. Without these efforts, the county contends, subsequent storms that are expected this weekend could cause more destruction.

Three people are still missing after last week’s heavy rains caused mud and debris to crash through homes in Montecito, killing at least 20 people and destroying more than 120 homes. Given the urgency of the situation, Fayram said less-than-ideal options had to be considered.

“Our chief concern is to return the community to normal as soon as possible,” he said. “After we get the community back in shape, people can slap me around all they want.”

Cleanup Today vs. Pollution Tomorrow

But some local residents worry that putting so much potentially contaminated soil right next to the ocean will only exacerbate an already difficult environmental cleanup. And the concerns are not without merit.

“That mud could contain everything from sewage, to oil and gas from ruptured lines, as well as pesticides, ash, maybe chemicals from inside houses,” said Chris Bryant, a regulatory consultant with Bergeson and Campbell, a Washington D.C.-based law firm focuses on issues related to chemical regulatory compliance.

In fact, a Jan. 17 advisory from the Santa Barbara County Department of Public Health said: “Unknown amounts of potentially hazardous chemicals and untreated sewage were swept into the mudslide debris that flowed through impacted areas.”

Residents returning to their properties after evacuation are being advised to get vaccinated against tetanus as well as hepatitis A, B, and C, which can result from exposure to unsanitary conditions.

Regulatory Carve-Out

“Even if [the mud] does contain hazardous materials, it will likely be exempt from the federal regulations for disposal of hazardous waste in special landfills,” Bryant told Bloomberg Environment.

A statutory and regulatory carve-out exists for so-called “household hazardous waste,” which includes any solvents, paints, pesticides, fertilizer, or poisons generated by “normal household activities.”

Despite the risk posed by potentially toxic mud, even environmental groups that would normally oppose shortcutting federal guidelines say the focus needs to remain on immediate cleanup.

Workers dump debris from the California mudslide on Goleta Beach in Santa Barbara on Jan. 12.
Photo: Courtesy of Eric Lyman

“Good environmental work focuses on fixing, upgrading and cleaning up everyday, ongoing practices that pollute,” said Hillary Hauser, executive director of Heal the Ocean, a Santa Barbara-based environmental group focused on water issues.

“We must realize this is not business as usual, and support our emergency workers all we can,” said Hauser. “Once we get to the other side of this monster that has hit us, we will do all we can to clean up and fix it.”

An Unprecedented Disaster

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed to Bloomberg Environment that the beach dumping was permitted under emergency waivers.

“This is really an event of unprecedented magnitude for this location,” said Colin Jones, a spokesman for the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans).

Caltrans has deployed more than 300 workers and some 200 dump trucks, loaders and excavators to manage the cleanup along a 2-mile stretch of the 101 Freeway, which has served as a catch basin for most of the mud.

In addition to the mud being dumped into the surf, most of the mud and dirt being cleaned up is going to inland locations, including along the freeway right-of-way, as well as an old quarry.

“We’re clearing out about 9,000 cubic yards of mud every day,” said Jones. “That’s a lot of trucks.”

According to a statement from Santa Barbara County, flood control personnel are at each of the beach dump sites and have been instructed to refuse any load that contains unpermitted material.

“Emergency permits issued do not require testing for this critical operation,” the county’s statement said. “However, Public Health Department officials will continue to test ocean waters and will act accordingly.”

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