Sunday, January 29, 2023

Cahto Tribe Demands Groundwater Testing at the Defunct Laytonville Landfill

A slope of the landfill covered with black plastic sheeting weighed down with sandbags after the terrain was destabilized due to rains in 2016 [All actual images from the site in the article are from an Environmental Protection Agency inspection document]

Scheduled maintenance at the Laytonville landfill has led to calls for more rigorous groundwater testing and a long-awaited agreement between state and county agencies and the Cahto tribe, whose rancheria is right next door to the closed dump site.

The Mendocino County-owned landfill was shut down in 1993, amid vigorous environmental protests. It was capped in 1997. In 2002 and 2003, the county received multiple letters from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, referring to “a breakdown in discussions with the Cahto Tribe for an access agreement necessary for installation of the proposed background wells” to investigate the groundwater. 

The Water Board wrote that, “In order to develop a comprehensive monitoring well network, background wells will need to be constructed on Cahto Tribe lands adjacent to the Site.”  For that to happen, the Tribe and the county would have to make an access agreement and the project would have to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

A map of the Laytonville Landfill from County of Mendocino documents

Last year, the County Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals from contractors to undertake a major renovation of the landfill cap, from fixing up access roads on the seven-acre site to replacing worn-out drainage pipes. The work was put on hold after the Cahto Tribe initiated government-to-government consultations with the California Environmental Protection Agency over its concerns about the landfill. 

The county submitted its plans for the cap repair in 2020, the same year as a report showing that one of the wells had detected groundwater contamination. That triggered a requirement that the county step up its monitoring program and submit a feasibility study for corrective action.

Since then, there’s been a flurry of correspondence involving the Tribe, the Water Board, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US and California Environmental Protective Agencies, county supervisors, community activists, and the Laytonville County Water District. 

The Tribe has now signed memorandums of understanding with the county and CalEPA to work together to monitor the site based on cultural relevance, with tribal input. Howard Dashiell, the head of the Mendocino County Department of Transportation, says the new request for proposals will formalize the county’s obligation to work with the Tribe.

“What the Board (of Supervisors) recently approved was a Memorandum of Understanding that we would collaborate with the Cahto Tribe,” he said; “that we would collaborate with them and have a mechanism for telling them about progress on a cap maintenance project.” Dashiell added that the new search for a contractor will include a stipulation about keeping the Tribe, and the town of Laytonville, apprised of the work that’s being done. “The new RFP will be roughly the same as the old one, except it will inform the consultant that they need to put in their scope of work, time for public meetings in the Laytonville community, at least one, and then with the tribal government, at least two, and to work with the tribal government’s technical representative as they develop the design. So the scope is changed to accommodate the MOU for communication with the Tribe.”

The compromised slope as seen from above back in 2016

Dietrick McGinnis is a Nevada-based environmental consultant who started monitoring the groundwater on the Cahto Rancheria about five years ago.

“I”ve worked for Tribes for about 22 years, in Nevada and California,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a county and a Tribe come together for an MOU regarding an environmental concern. The county was directed to do this by the Water Board, and we’re really happy to see it…And to see the state ask for it, I think, is very respectful of tribal sovereignty. Going forward, I hope we can work together. Just synchronizing sampling events between the landfill and the Tribe increases the quality of the data we produce —  or the quality of the interpretation from that data.”

His work is still in the assessment phase, but he suspects that remediation may be necessary. “Over the last few years, we’ve put in remote sensing equipment, and done regular analysis on surface water and groundwater,” he reported. “We’ve found some releases, most likely from the landfill, coming into shallow groundwater, and some hints of volatile organic compounds in surface water that originates from the landfill itself…we’re picking up little bits of acetone, some plasticizers, things that indicate origins at the landfill, but are not in concentrations that have been terribly remarkable. But we’re doing an assessment right now, so we’re just simply following those hints to see how bad the problem is…Unfortunately, we see a lot of this in Indian Country, where these types of sites end up adjacent to tribal trust property. In this case, we have what is essentially rural residential property with an industrial site next door…this isn’t where landfills are supposed to go. They’re supposed to be far away from homes and people and children. And this is doubled down on when we look at these in Indian Country, because the Tribe wants to utilize their natural resources to reflect their cultural values. Harvesting the fish, the plants. And when they collect these things and consume them, they’re getting an increased exposure to what’s released by sites like this. So it’s almost like doubling down on the bad. It should have never been located here, because the Tribe was here before the landfill. And these homes, many of them were here before the landfill. And then it deprived the Tribe of the opportunity to harvest some of these things on their own property.”

On the county side of the landfill, there is a network of ten wells, plus gas probes and devices that monitor the depth and pressure of the groundwater. A 2020 report found that the well on the southeast corner of the site showed increased levels of several elements, including iron, manganese, chloride, calcium, sodium, sulfate and arsenic. Yana Garcia, the Secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, wrote Supervisors John Haschak and Dan Gjerde a letter on December 13, saying that additional groundwater monitoring locations and an updated inspection plan are part of the landfill renovation that she expects will take about two years. 

On the Rancheria side, McGinnis wants to put in a half-dozen more monitoring wells. “I’ve got three 20-foot wells, and two of them are showing signs of being negatively affected by the landfill,” he said. “The third not being negatively affected actually provides me with a bit of a control. The depth (of the new wells) will actually be dependent on what we find as we drill. It wouldn’t surprise me if we end up going anywhere between 50 and 100 feet.” McGinnis added that the Tribe is open to working with the state, county or federal government to achieve a complete assessment. “And a complete assessment will require wells all around the site, to complement those that already exist,” he said. “The Tribe’s a little bit ahead, because I do have a few monitoring wells I’ve been able to work with. So I can design over here today. But hopefully we can design for the rest of the community soon. And encourage them to put in a system that will provide a complete picture of groundwater conditions around the landfill.” 

It won’t be cheap. “This is not an inexpensive endeavor,” McGinnis acknowledged. “I think that we’re going to see, at least on this side of things, at least another million dollars spent before we have a good handle on it. Expanding the system could double that price. And then cleaning up landfills, if you get lucky and it isn’t much of a problem, you know, it can only be seven figures. If it goes the other way, you just start putting zeros behind things.” He hastened to add that the project is “very much in the assessment phase right now, so I hate to scare anybody. But it’s not ten thousand dollars.” He thinks he could spend half a million dollars on a first phase groundwater assessment, and another half million for soil analysis.

McGinnis said the work has been funded so far mainly by federal grants specific to the Tribe, which has leveraged the funds for more grants from the EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Tribe has also received Environmental Justice funding from the State of California, “which I think speaks loudly to what this problem really means,” McGinnis concluded.

Peggy Hoaglin, who founded the Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice over the summer, recalls her history of living close to the landfill. (Hoaglin is not affiliated with the Cahto Tribe.) In the 1980’s, she said the dump caught on fire regularly, causing her to experience exhaustion, headaches, and flu-like symptoms for days afterwards. “When you live under a dump, you think everyone lives under dumps,” she said. In 1993, she called her county supervisor and told him, “I’m chaining myself to that dump, and you’ll never dump on me again. That’s what I did. So I chained myself to that dump, and I went to jail for the very first time in my life.”

Hoaglin attributes her own ongoing health problems, the death of her husband, and illnesses among her neighbors to contaminants in the landfill. I checked with one of the neighbors she mentioned, and that person does not attribute their health problems to the dump, and said their well water has tested clean.  

The Laytonville Landfill Cap

The Rancheria receives water from the Laytonville County Water District, which tests for a number of industrial contaminants, according to District Manager Jim Shields. The district water is treated for iron, manganese, and arsenic, which are naturally occurring contaminants in the area. About twenty years ago, the district got a grant to upgrade its water treatment plant.

“That water is perfectly safe to use for all purposes,” said Shields. “We do thousands of tests a year. We do tests we don’t even have to do. We’re not even required by any of our regulatory agencies to test for PCB and hexavalent chromium. We do that on our own. We do tests, on a regular basis, for PCBs and chrome 6. I’ve done that from day one. Why do I do it when we don’t have to do it? I do it because I’m a responsible member of this community. I listen to people. If people have concerns over those issues, I’m going to do what I can to ensure and guarantee that there are not those sorts of contamination risks here. In fact, we just completed our annual PCB and chrome 6 tests. They’re very expensive to do, and once again, it came up negative. Especially the test for PCBs. It’s a very broad scale kind of full-gamut test. Never, ever, ever have we ever found any of that in our water.”

Shields says he also tests private wells, where the water is untreated. “We continue to test private drinking wells,” he emphasized. “They are the drinking wells that are immediately adjacent to the landfill. There’s an old well on the rez that’s no longer active. It hasn’t been active on the rez since 1969, because they’ve been on city water since then. So these wells that we test, and we’re primarily testing them for PCBs and chrome 6, they are literally right next door to the landfill, downslope gradient, so that if there’s anything escaping or migrating off of that landfill, boy, most likely, you’re going to see that stuff in those wells.”

Hexavalent chrome is a highly toxic industrial contaminant that has been found in the north county. In 1996, the City of Willits sued Remco Hydraulics over the improper disposal of toxins used in its chrome-plating and manufacturing business. Other lawsuits followed, including one from a family whose five-year-old son died after playing in Baechtel Creek, which was contaminated with chromium. Shields, who is the long-time editor of the Laytonville Observer, says he followed the investigations closely, and he doesn’t think the material was dumped as far north as Laytonville. He recalls hearing from Remco workers, in formal as well as less formal settings.

“Their testimony was, no, we dumped all that stuff down here in Willits,” he recalled. “What my friend said, and it made sense, was, why would we load up chrome 6 and haul it 22 miles north to Laytonville? Why would we do that?”

Still, county Supervisors John Haschak and Dan Gjerde, who represent Laytonville since post-census redistricting shifted parts of Bell Springs Road and Spyrock to the Fourth District, asked the state to review previous studies and conduct more testing, if it’s warranted. The water district signed on to the county’s request. 

“The more testing and investigation of that landfill and the adjacent areas, the better,” Shields declared.

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Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith
Sarah Reith is a radio and print reporter working in Mendocino and Humboldt counties, focusing on local politics and environmental news.

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