Prove your humanity

Residents living near a hazardous waste landfill in Westmoreland County are upset that the U.S. EPA is allowing the facility to continue operating despite finding multiple violations. 

Last year, EPA investigators found nearly two dozen violations at the Max Environmental Technologies hazardous waste landfill in the town of Yukon. 

They found waste buried at the landfill with 1300 times the legal limit of cadmium, a heavy metal and probable human carcinogen that can affect the kidneys and lungs. They also found poorly maintained buildings and piles of hazardous waste left exposed to the elements. 

EPA finds spills, leaks, heavy metals at hazardous waste landfill in Westmoreland County

The agency issued an order on April 19 allowing the treatment facility to continue operating, provided it submits to third-party inspections and audits. It also required the facility to conduct groundwater sampling near the landfill. 

Carl Spadaro, environmental general manager of MAX Environmental Technologies, Inc., said in an email that the company has “been working to resolve any compliance issues” raised by the EPA and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. “MAX will continue to complete work required under the EPA consent order to address those issues and provide updates to those agencies as required.”

EPA officials vowed to pay close attention to whether the landfill fulfills its legal obligations. 

“We’re going to have very strict oversight and compliance with this order,” said Jeanna Henry, an officer in the regional enforcement division at EPA. 

Still, that didn’t comfort some nearby residents, who have long complained that the landfill is making people in the area sick. 

“It really is scary to know that that’s just up over the hill,” said Debbie Franzetta, who lives less than a mile from the landfill in the town of West Newton. 

Franzetta and a handful of residents attended a press conference in Yukon this week arranged by local environmental groups. Franzetta said a neighbor moved away after having several miscarriages. Others have worried that local cases of cancer and heart disease were caused by the landfill. 

“You would think with as many violations as they had and what they found, that they would stop working here and shut them down. But they have not,” she said.

Christine Stall, who also attended the press conference, lives in Yukon. 

“Right down the street from my home, there are a couple of newer families who have moved in. And they have little children, and they’re growing up breathing this in. What is it going to do to them?” she said. 

Stall, too, found it hard to see why the EPA continued to allow the landfill to operate. “Why didn’t they just tell (MAX), ‘you know what? You can’t do anything till you fix these things.’ ”

However, Rebecca Serfass, an acting chief in EPA’s enforcement division, said filing the consent order was the best way to get the landfill to clean up its operation. 

“EPA doesn’t have the authority to just unilaterally shut down a facility without allowing them their due process rights,” Serfass said. “By entering into the order …with the facility, we’re able to address the violations as quickly as possible.”

Serfass said the March 2023 inspection that kicked off the order was an annual inspection required by the landfill under its hazardous waste permit. 

Details of the violations and consent order

The inspectors found improperly treated waste buried in Landfill Number 6, the only active disposal site at the 160-acre facility. 

Materials that are buried there are required to be below certain thresholds for hazardous materials. The samples found by the EPA investigators were not only high in cadmium, but also 20 times the allowable limit for lead, a neurotoxin, and double the limit for thallium, a metal that can damage the nervous system, lung, heart, liver, and kidney

The consent order stipulates the landfill needs to hire “a professional engineer to perform a structural and mechanical evaluation” of its facilities, and make any recommended repairs. It also requires the company to hire an environmental contractor to audit the facility’s sampling and waste treatment procedures, and make any recommended changes. The order also mandates additional groundwater sampling. 

Lauren Camarda, spokeswoman for the DEP, said in an emailed statement that the agency “continues to work collaboratively with (EPA) on compliance with, and enforcement of, environmental statutes and regulations at MAX Environmental Technologies’ Yukon facility. EPA is the lead environmental agency on this consent order. DEP will continue to inspect the facility to ensure MAX is in compliance with applicable laws.”

A history of problems

The landfill, less than 500 feet from homes in Yukon, was built in the 1960s on top of a former strip mine. 

It has historically accepted waste from the steel and glass industries; in recent years it has continued to receive waste from the steel industry as well as drill cuttings from the oil and gas industry,

In the 1980s, the DEP found the landfill had leached chemicals into the groundwater, and the DEP ordered the company to re-cap some sections. The EPA says groundwater beneath the facility shows “sporadic exceedances” of fluoride, barium, cadmium, lead and manganese.

Stacy Magda with Mountain Watershed Association, which helped organize the press conference and has been active in the town, said the order was a “missed opportunity to hold the company accountable. (Mountain Watershed receives funding from The Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.)

“It feels like it’s only going to get Max into compliance for a period of time to allow them to pursue further operations,” Magda said. “It still fails to address the issues that there is improperly treated hazardous waste on this facility.”