Unfair Settlement Over Toxic Waste Dump Stopped at Alkali Lake
In 2012, Crag represented local residents in the high desert of Oregon to object to a settlement between the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and Bayer Cropscience, the company that made and profited from the sale of the toxic chemical Agent Orange.
The settlement effectively would have let Bayer off the hook for toxic chemical pollution near Alkali Lake in Central Oregon.
For the past four decades, the company has avoided accountability for the exploitation of Oregon’s high desert and the hundreds of thousands of gallons of toxic waste evaporated into the air and onto the high desert floor. The material at this site is highly toxic, poisonous to life – and it is actively migrating off the site. There was and is no clean up planned. Crag represented local residents and the Oregon Natural Desert Association to press the EPA and the DEQ to make the polluter pay for the toxic mess it left in the desert.
In the 1970’s over a million gallons of drums of Agent Orange, a blend of toxic herbicides used as combat weaponry during the Vietnam War, were transported to Alkali Lake in Lake County. Agent Orange was known to give countless troops cancer in the 60’s and early 70’s. When Oregon DEQ transported the chemicals over to the site in 1976, the drums of chemicals were actively leaking. It was estimated that about 50% of the Agent Orange and residues had evaporated into the air and leaked out onto the desert floor. DEQ took over the illegal waste site because the company had done nothing to ensure the toxic waste was properly maintained. In 1976, the DEQ ordered the lethal chemicals to be crushed and buried onsite.
In 2011, 36 years post-leak, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that these highly toxic chemicals were migrating from the dump site- underground and on the surface of the water. Until 2011 the DEQ had taken a passive “maintain and monitor approach” – and Bayer only offered to pay based on a limited site analysis performed by the previously negligent DEQ. On behalf of Oregon Natural Desert Association, Crag asked DEQ to exercise its authority and declare the site a Superfund site and initiate a clean-up action with EPA’s help. The publicly rejected settlement has forced the DEQ to explore other clean-up options–including digging up the most contaminated soils.
In this legal effort to keep the DEQ and the polluters accountable for environmental harms, Crag not only represented the Oregon Natural Desert Association but advocated for the local communities as well. When the DEQ floated their faulty offer to the public, it was largely rejected. Local residents do not believe that the Oregon DEQ or its attorneys with the Oregon Department of Justice did an adequate job of holding Bayer accountable nor have they done an adequate job characterizing the risks that the toxic dump poses to human health and the environment.
Stakes & What’s Next
The fact of the matter is that the millions of gallons of leaked chemicals and pollution from decades ago is irrevocable. The settlement efforts in 2012 cannot change the negligence of Bayer in their toxic chemical pollution. Through this legal action Crag aimed to keep the agency and the company accountable for their irrevocable actions done against the fragile climate, the unique desert ecosystems, and local communities who live on contaminated land.
While the DEQ took a step in the right direction by settling with Bayer Cropscience, the question after this victory is whether DEQ will take the next step and actually protect the public interest and pursue the polluter for the chemicals it made, profited from and then dumped into the ground.