A handful of current and former employees of the Panoche Water District – the public agency that distributes water for nearly 40,000 acres of western Merced and Fresno counties in central California – have been arrested and charged in a felony complaint that included the unlawful disposal and transportation of hazardous waste.
A department overseeing toxic substances within the California Environmental Protection Agency found 86 drums of hazardous waste illegally buried on the water district’s property. The drums contained between 35 and 55 gallons of “chlorine, caustic soda, iron chloride and a mixture of used antifreeze, used solvents, and used oil,” according to the California EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).
In the criminal complaint filed last week, the DTSC said that during removal of the drums from the property, the department discovered that the liquid hazardous waste was leaking into the ground. The contamination is being remediated. Hazardous waste was also found to have been sent to businesses not permitted to receive the waste, resulting in the charge of illegally transporting hazardous waste.
The complaint also included embezzlement and conspiracy to misappropriate public funds.
DTSC referred the criminal case to the office of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in September 2017.
Construction workers originally discovered the barrels on the district’s land about a year ago, according to the Fresno Bee. At the time, board president John Bennett said the Panoche Water District believed that nothing stored in the barrels was “outside of the ordinary chemicals used by the district in its operations.” Initial laboratory tests indicated some of the chemicals were those routinely used in the treatment of water.
NPR points out that, with drought predicted to hit the Golden State again this year, water management issues in California are likely to get more attention. The US Drought Monitor shows that nearly 48% of California is in at least “moderate drought,” while more than 91% of the state is listed as at least “abnormally dry.”