Does Forest Service have an Obligation to Clean Up Hazardous Waste?

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New Lawsuit Launched Seeks to Compel Remediation of Public Land

EPIC—together with our allies at the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Center, Californians for Alternatives to Toxics, Northcoast Environmental Center, and Safe Alternatives for our Forest Environment—filed a formal notice of intent to sue the Forest Service for failing to clean up hazardous waste associated with trespass cannabis grows on Forest Service lands in California. At the heart of the lawsuit is a novel legal question: is the federal government obligated to remove hazardous waste on its property? By deliberately leaving hazardous waste in the forest, often without warning or marking, conservation groups assert that the Forest Service is putting the public and the environment at risk.

Trespass cannabis cultivation is routine on public lands in California and the Forest Service—the largest landowner in the state—busts dozens of grow sites per year. While trash and other solid waste is often removed from grow sites after law enforcement comes in, deadly pesticides, including some that are banned for use in the United States, are routinely left at the former grow site because of the cost and complexity of removal. This presents a legacy problem for humans and the environment. 

“Our public lands should not be warehouses for toxic chemicals,” said Tom Wheeler, executive director of the Environmental Protection Information Center and the author of the notice letter. “The Forest Service has an obligation under the law to deal with hazardous waste left on their lands. Their failure to do so harms the environment and puts human lives at risk.”

Hazardous waste discovered yet left in the forest include carbofuran, warfarin, zinc phosphide, strychnine, methomyl, carbaryl, and aluminum phosphide. The risk to humans is acute. Take carbofuran for example. Carbofuran, a potent neurotoxic insecticide, is so hazardous that it can kill an adult human with just a drop —1/16th of a teaspoon—and is one of the most toxic carbamate pesticides ever produced. Carbofuran is found at approximately 32-34% of trespass grow sites in California. Often found in unmarked containers, like chemical sprayers and Gatorade bottles, simply picking up a bottle of carbofuran without gloves exposes a person to the poison. Carbofuran is so dangerous that as of 2009, there are no legally permitted uses for carbofuran. The risk is also not abstract, as law enforcement officers have been injured by pesticide exposure at trespass grow sites. 

A trespass grow full of trash on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Regional Director of CROP, Jackee Riccio, stands in black in the background. Photo submitted by Jackee Riccio.

Hazardous waste also continues to make its way into the environment. Recent research shows that pesticide residue is commonly found in the blood of endangered species, such as the northern spotted owl and the Pacific fisher, so much so that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized toxicants associated with trespass cannabis production as a threat to these species. 

The Forest Service is aware of this problem. In 2018, the Office of Inspector General at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, under which the Forest Service is nested, found the Forest Service was putting the general public at risk: “We found that Forest Service….does not always reclaim and rehabilitate marijuana grow sites after plants are eradicated….As a result, trash and chemicals such as pesticides and fertilizers are still present on these grow sites, thereby putting the public, wildlife, and environment at risk of contamination.” Worse still, the Forest Service “does not track the status of reclamation and rehabilitation activities at grow sites or consistently

document marijuana plants eradicated from or hazardous materials found at these sites. Without these data, FS is unable to determine the presence, types, and locations of hazardous materials left on the national forests. Consequently, it cannot prioritize grow sites for reclamation and rehabilitation efforts to minimize the sites’ risk to the public and wildlife.”

By filing the notice of intent to sue, conservation organizations hope to forestall actual litigation by forcefully encouraging the Forest Service to budget and plan for the full remediation of all known grow sites on their lands in the state. 

Conservation groups are represented by William Verick of the Klamath Environmental Law Center.