Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

Hidden Hazards: Toxic waste in California

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters

California has a hazardous waste problem. The state makes a lot of it, millions of tons a year in electronic detritus, corrosive chemicals, old batteries, harmful shampoos and more. The waste has to go somewhere, and no one wants a new landfill in their backyard.

Since 2010, nearly half of California’s hazardous waste left the Golden State, generally to neighboring states with weaker environmental standards. Inside the state, the number of facilities permitted to handle hazardous waste dropped by 80% since the early 1980s. The remaining facilities are clustered in communities of color, often in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty. Recent environmental justice laws are meant to protect communities like those from pollution, but state regulators face pressure to keep the operations running from industry representatives who argue they are too rare to fail.

“We are not a rich people,” one neighbor to a hazardous waste recycling plant east of Los Angeles told CalMatters. “So they put all of them over here in this area.”

Hidden Hazards, an ongoing investigation by Robert Lewis of CalMatters, tracks toxic trash to the communities that receive it and across borders to the landfills and treatment plants that are courting business from California’s waste producers. Installments were edited by Marjie Lundstrom and Adam Ashton; with photography and videos were by Miguel Gutierrez Jr. Visualizations and interactives by Jeremia Kimelman, audio editing by Mary Franklin Harvin and digital production by Liliana Michelena.

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