Report 2000-109 Summary - December 2000

California Integrated Waste Management Board:

Limited Authority and Weak Oversight Diminish Its Ability to Protect Public Health and the Environment

RESULTS IN BRIEF

The California Integrated Waste Management Board (board) lacks appropriate authority to fully protect the environment and public safety through its oversight of the State's 176 active solid waste landfills (landfills). Also, the board has weakened its ability to properly regulate landfills by adopting policies that contradict state law, not effectively monitoring landfill activity, and allowing extensive delays in landfill closures. Further, the Legislature's goal of using recycling and composting to divert trash away from landfills is at risk. When counties and cities (local governments) report their progress next year, they will probably fall short of the 50 percent diversion by 2000 that is required by the Integrated Waste Management Act of 1989 (act). These findings concern all Californians because weakly regulated landfill operations carry the potential to contaminate groundwater, release harmful gases into the air, and spread disease through animals and insects that are naturally attracted to landfills.

Currently, the board has the authority to object to a landfill expansion permit if the landfill owner or operator has not met state minimum standards, which include provisions for explosive gas control, daily cover, and landfill grading. However, the law does not allow the board to object to a permit if it believes that additional landfill capacity is unnecessary or that the local governments are not addressing concerns about environmental justice, which ensures the fair treatment of all people with respect to environmental regulations. Consequently, the board is limited in its authority to ensure that landfill operations do not unnecessarily harm the public and the environment.

The board has policies that conflict with state laws and regulations governing landfill activities. For example, the board has approved expansions for landfills even when the landfill owners or operators were continually violating state minimum standards, such as committing long-term explosive gas violations. The board's decisions to approve these permits were consistent with its 1994 policy, which states that the board can approve the issuance of permits if the violations of state minimum standards are long-term and pose no threat to public health and safety or to the environment, the local enforcement agencies (LEAs) have issued enforcement orders, and the owners or operators are making good-faith efforts to correct the violations. The board also has a 1990 policy that allows operators that are violating the terms and conditions of their existing permits to continue to do so while seeking approval for revised permits from LEAs and the board. Between 1990 and 1999, this policy has allowed 56 operators to implement changes in operation without obtaining environmental analyses or seeking comments from the public. These policies are inconsistent with state law and may be harmful to the environment as well as public health.

The board's ineffective monitoring of landfill activity creates further environmental and health risks. The board did not monitor each landfill every 18 months, as state law requires, to ensure that the LEAs were adequately enforcing state minimum standards. Since 1995, the board was between 1 month and 4 years late in performing inspections at 132 of the 176 active landfills. However, in the last year, it has made significant strides toward reducing the number of overdue inspections. The board also does not ensure that LEAs enforce landfill violations in a timely and effective manner. According to the board's database, as of August 31, 2000, LEAs had issued 64 enforcement orders to 47 landfill operators. Our analysis shows that for 43 of these enforcement orders, the operators have not complied by the deadlines and are overdue from 114 to 2,710 days. Moreover, board staff state that only one monetary penalty has been assessed in the past 10 years. Without appropriate board oversight, potential conflicts of interest between LEAs and landfill owners or operators cannot be mitigated and long-term violations can continue without correction. Conflicts of interest are possible because LEAs, which have enforcement responsibilities, are often part of the same local governments that receive revenues from owning and operating landfills.

Finally, the board is allowing landfill operators to delay closure for extended periods. As a result, they are bypassing federal and state closure regulations established to address the fact that landfills not properly closed could threaten public health and the environment. Although state regulations require operators to submit final closure plans two years before completely ceasing operations, in 36 out of 289 instances, landfills had ceased operations before the board received the plans. Additionally, landfills are accepting only small amounts of waste, a process called "trickling waste," to delay final closure activities until they can amass sufficient funds to pay for final closure and postclosure maintenance. The board believes that a lack of coordination, consistency, and cooperation with other agencies on certain issues hinders effective closure activities. However, the board has taken no action either to change regulations to prevent LEAs from extending deadlines for closure plan submission indefinitely or to assume the role of coordinating agency.

In 1988, each Californian disposed of more than 2,500 pounds of solid waste, more than any other state in the country, and the State estimated that it would exhaust its remaining landfill space by the mid-1990s. Responding to this crisis, the Legislature required that local governments implement waste reduction, recycling, and composting programs aimed at diverting 50 percent of their solid waste from landfills by the end of 2000. California has made significant progress toward waste diversion but may not meet the 50 percent goal. Moreover, local governments may be reporting inaccurate diversion rates because their calculation method uses numbers that may be flawed and they have received inconsistent guidance from the board. The formula local governments use to calculate their diversion rates requires a reliable figure for the amount of solid waste generated in a base year. However, many local governments have found that the original studies of solid waste generation used to determine their base year have been inaccurate. For example, errors arose from their failure to track large segments of the waste stream. Local governments also were supposed to identify 15 years of landfill capacity. Based on our analysis, we estimate that California has sufficient landfill capacity for about 47 years. The increase in landfill capacity since the mid-1990s can be attributed to more realistic estimates, new and expanding landfills, and diversion efforts.

RECOMMENDATIONS

To ensure that the board can fully achieve its mission to protect public health and safety and the environment, the board should take the following actions:

  • Explore its options for taking into account the necessity for increased landfill capacity as a factor in granting permits.

  • Seek legislative authority to object to permit proposals when environmental justice concerns exist.

  • Discontinue the use of its 1994 policy of concurring with permit revisions for landfills that have long-term violations of state minimum standards.

  • Suspend its 1990 policy of allowing operators to violate the terms and conditions of their permits while seeking approval for permit revisions.

  • Continue to improve its performance in conducting landfill inspections every 18 months, as state law requires.

  • Ensure that LEAs require operators to comply with enforcement orders by the dates specified in the orders and issue penalties to those that do not comply.

  • Modify its regulations to prevent LEAs from extending deadlines indefinitely for submitting closure plans.
To ensure that reported diversion rates are accurate, the board should modify its regulations to require local governments to revise their base-year figures at least every five years. The board should then identify local governments that need to perform new base-year solid waste generation studies and require them to do so.

AGENCY COMMENTS

The board generally concurs with our recommendations and indicates that its members have recently begun a full examination of all policies of the board with an eye toward lessons learned in the last 10 years. It also states that a full evaluation of these policies is underway and will result in a full review of all recommendations made in this report.


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