Dirtying the waters

County faces potential $240 million fine for alleged discharge of contaminated stormwater

Leachate is shown seeping into a stormwater pond at the Butte County landfill in February 2019.

Leachate is shown seeping into a stormwater pond at the Butte County landfill in February 2019.

Photo via Butte County Public Works Department

State water officials are investigating the Butte County landfill on Neal Road for allegedly discharging an estimated 24 million gallons of waste-contaminated stormwater onto a neighboring property and watershed last winter, according to documents recently obtained by the CN&R.

The documents, which were prepared by the State Water Resources Control Board’s Office of Enforcement and sent to the county’s Public Works Department last month, alerted the county that it may be liable for up to $10 per gallon—for spillage in excess of 1,000 gallons—of water discharged, which suggests a maximum possible penalty of about $240 million.

Yvonne West, director of the state water board’s Office of Enforcement, told the CN&R on Tuesday (Feb. 25) that the investigation is ongoing and formal action has not yet been taken. Further, she said, investigators have no information indicating an immediate risk to human health or safety. The discharges occurred following rainstorms in February 2019.

Nevertheless, the documents raise questions about the scope of the environmental impact caused by the alleged unauthorized discharges. That impact, West said, is also under investigation by enforcement officials and could be considered as a factor in any potential imposition of penalties.

The documents indicate that during rainstorms around Feb. 14 and Feb. 26, 2019, a mountain of garbage at the landfill sustained blowouts along its lower portion, creating leachate seeps—water contaminated with waste—that flowed into a nearby pond meant to capture stormwater runoff. From there, a diesel-operated pump sent water from the now-contaminated pond into a ditch that carried the dirty water to the landfill’s primary sedimentation basin, which includes two areas, according to the documents. The first area is where stormwater from the facility initially enters to settle out solids before discharging into the second area, an on-site wetland. The sedimentiaton basin also is a preserve managed by California Open Lands—a local nonprofit land trust organization—under a conservation easement.

From the sedimentation basin, the water flowed over a weir and out of the landfill onto a neighboring wetland. The documents indicate that the contaminated water may have entered Hamlin Slough, which feeds into Butte Creek, a tributary of the Sacramento River. Stormwater samples taken at the time and site of the discharges showed elevated levels of dissolved solids, including volatile organic compounds such as acetone, methyl ethyl ketone, ethanol and tetrahydrofuran, according to state investigators.

State investigators this past fall interviewed Butte County staff and other people involved with the operations at the landfill, including officials with California Open Lands.

According to a summary of an interview with Holly Nielsen, executive director at California Open Lands, on Oct. 16, Nielsen expressed concern about the county’s management at the landfill. She told investigators that Todd Storti, a former county deputy director of waste management, allegedly “outright denied” the leachate discharges happened and refused to comply with requests to sample and remediate the preserve at the landfill.

Last month, California Open Lands filed a lawsuit against Butte County alleging the county has violated the Clean Water Act in connection with the leachate discharges in February 2019. The suit, which was filed Jan. 16 in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of California, alleges in part that polluted stormwater harmful to fish, plant and bird life, as well as human health, is “being discharged from the facility” and into nearby waterways during “significant rain events.”

Dennis Schmidt, Butte County’s director of public works, did not respond to messages seeking comment. County Counsel Bruce Alpert also did not respond to a message seeking comment.

West, the director of the state water board’s Office of Enforcement, told the CN&R that the scope of the environmental impact caused by the polluted stormwater discharges at the landfill, including the impact to local waterways, remains under review by investigators.

She said large discharges—such as the 24 million gallons of leachate-impacted water alleged at Butte County’s landfill—are not unheard of. Usually, she said, such substantial discharges are associated with large rain events. Speaking generally, she said, the toxicity of discharges may be diluted during such rainstorms.

West noted, however, that investigators will attempt to further substantiate their calculations regarding the volume of leachate-impacted stormwater that flowed out of the facility and its toxicity. Asked about the county’s potential liability reaching $240 million in penalties, West said that, given current calculations, that may be the statutory maximum the state could pursue, but it is rare to seek the maximums.

Multiple factors are considered by the state water board in any decision to impose a penalty, including culpability, whether the offending party reasonably tried to prevent or stop a discharge, the nature of the substance discharge and harm to waterways, she said.

“We haven’t officially adopted any … finding. We haven’t taken any formal action at this point,” West said. “There’s an ongoing investigation into the issue—into the occurrence and the facts surrounding that occurrence and what was the cause, the impact and various parties involved in it. And whether it was handled appropriately.”

Nevertheless, the director said the board takes discharge violations, such as the ones being investigated at the landfill, seriously.

“We are taking our time to investigate it—to understand the facts surrounding the cause and the impacts,” West said. “We want the community to know that we are engaged and we’re concerned.”