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The Laytonville Dump; the Rest of the Story

As much as I hate to admit it, I’ve been involved with the Laytonville landfill since the early 90s when the debate first raged about closing the damn thing.

Back then Jim Eddie, of Potter Valley, was our supervisor.

Eddie’s take on people who were demanding — and demonstrating at the dump — that the landfill be closed because of alleged contamination issues was, “Protesters are not going to tell us how to run our dumps.”

Here’s the advice I gave the Supes in 1993:

“The answer to the current dilemma lies with county officials taking a very reasonable course of action. Based on what is in the record now — no one knows for certain whether the dump is toxic or not — the Board of Supervisors, acting under its broad emergency powers, simply closes the dump now and continues with the mandatory closure procedures — including all the testing and monitoring requirements — under state and federal law. At the same time, the county should open a waste transfer station in the Laytonville area — again under its emergency authority. Put succinctly, the Laytonville dump is not worth fighting over any longer. Whatever happens concerning the county’s landfill crisis, you can be assured of two things. The issue is not going away and, right now, we are a long way from solving it.”

Guess what?

The Board of Supervisors actually did what I recommended, but as I also predicted, the issue didn’t go away, and we’re still a long way from solving it nearly 30 years later.

Contrary to the totally groundless allegations of Peggy Smith Hoaglin for past three decades that our drinking water is contaminated, one thing is for certain:

After years and years of water quality testing that continue to date on an ongoing basis, no contamination attributable to the Laytonville Dump site or any other point source of contamination, has ever been detected in the water produced and provided by the Laytonville County Water District. That is the same conclusion reached by every regulatory agency and consulting organization that have conducted investigations and water quality testing related to the long-closed landfill.

Laytonville’s drinking water is produced from two wells that pump water from an inter-connected 17,000 acre-foot aquifer that is bordered by Highway 101 on the east and Ten Mile Creek to the west, a mile and a half east of the old dump. Our aquifer is the underground remnant of the pre-historic Lake Laytonville, that once filled our high mountain valley. We treat our water to remove iron, manganese and arsenic to meet all EPA standards. 

Ms. Hoaglin and Jon Spitz recently joined together in a group calling itself the “Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice.” 

On January 5th, I published in the Observer a Laytonville landfill story by Sarah Reith, who’s the news director at KZYX and a reporter.

As someone who has many years experience dealing with the landfill as both a local government official (Laytonville Water District, Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council) and media type (editor and publisher of Mendocino County Observer, news program on KPFN), I thought Reith did a fine job capturing the landfill’s history, as well as covering recent developments. Reith interviewed the County’s Director of Transportation, Howard Dashiell, who oversees the closed landfill, a Cahto Tribe environmental consultant, representatives, including Hoaglin and Spitz, of the Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice, and yours truly. Her piece was well-written, cogent, and informative. 

Last week, I used her story as part of my Saturday radio show on KPFN. Both reader and listener comments were positive and appreciative of her report.

Surprisingly and for inexplicable reasons, Spitz complains in a letter-to-the-editor that Reith’s outstanding piece lacked “critical reporting.” 

Balderdash and nonsense.

Most of his letter is a grievance lodged against Reith for not acting as a megaphone for his group. He clearly expected Reith to conform to his belief that her role in the interview was that as stenographer not journalist.

To characterize his reaction to Reith’s story as over-the-top is an understatement.

Spitz actually criticizes me for doing my job conducting water quality tests:

“Shields acknowledges that it is the Laytonville County Water District that is testing wells on the unincorporated land adjacent to the dump/landfill even though it is not their responsibility to do so. Residents of Laytonville should not have to depend on the Laytonville County Water District with its limited funds and lack of expertise monitoring toxic waste sites, that is a job for CalEPA.”

Spitz demonstrates an appalling lack of knowledge about the sworn duties of the administrator of a local government public water utility. We are required by law to protect and safeguard the public health of our customers and constituents. We do that in many ways, but mainly by water quality testing.

I’m shocked chagrined, and surprised by his preposterous demand that I cease testing. 

I guarantee you that is not ever going to happen.

What now follows are Reith’s report, then Spitz’s letter, and lastly Sarah Reith’s response to it.

* * *


by Sarah Reith


Scheduled maintenance at the Laytonville landfill has led to calls for more rigorous groundwater testing and a long-awaited agreement between state and county agencies and the Cahto tribe, whose rancheria is right next door to the closed dump site.

The Mendocino County-owned landfill was shut down in 1993, amid vigorous environmental protests. It was capped in 1997. In 2002 and 2003, the county received multiple letters from the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board, referring to “a breakdown in discussions with the Cahto Tribe for an access agreement necessary for installation of the proposed background wells” to investigate the groundwater. 

The Water Board wrote that, “In order to develop a comprehensive monitoring well network, background wells will need to be constructed on Cahto Tribe lands adjacent to the Site.” For that to happen, the Tribe and the county would have to make an access agreement and the project would have to be approved by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Last year, the County Department of Transportation issued a request for proposals from contractors to undertake a major renovation of the landfill cap, from fixing up access roads on the seven-acre site to replacing worn-out drainage pipes. The work was put on hold after the Cahto Tribe initiated government-to-government consultations with the California Environmental Protection Agency over its concerns about the landfill. 

The county submitted its plans for the cap repair in 2020, the same year as a report showing that one of the wells had detected groundwater contamination. That triggered a requirement that the county step up its monitoring program and submit a feasibility study for corrective action.

Since then, there’s been a flurry of correspondence involving the Tribe, the Water Board, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the US and California Environmental Protective Agencies, county supervisors, community activists, and the Laytonville County Water District. 

The Tribe has now signed memorandums of understanding with the county and CalEPA to work together to monitor the site based on cultural relevance, with tribal input. Howard Dashiell, the head of the Mendocino County Department of Transportation, says the new request for proposals will formalize the county’s obligation to work with the Tribe.

“What the Board (of Supervisors) recently approved was a Memorandum of Understanding that we would collaborate with the Cahto Tribe,” he said; “that we would collaborate with them and have a mechanism for telling them about progress on a cap maintenance project.” Dashiell added that the new search for a contractor will include a stipulation about keeping the Tribe, and the town of Laytonville, apprised of the work that’s being done. “The new RFP will be roughly the same as the old one, except it will inform the consultant that they need to put in their scope of work, time for public meetings in the Laytonville community, at least one, and then with the tribal government, at least two, and to work with the tribal government’s technical representative as they develop the design. So the scope is changed to accommodate the MOU for communication with the Tribe.”

Dietrick McGinnis is a Nevada-based environmental consultant who started monitoring the groundwater on the Cahto Rancheria about five years ago.

“I”ve worked for Tribes for about 22 years, in Nevada and California,” he said. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a county and a Tribe come together for an MOU regarding an environmental concern. The county was directed to do this by the Water Board, and we’re really happy to see it…And to see the state ask for it, I think, is very respectful of tribal sovereignty. Going forward, I hope we can work together. Just synchronizing sampling events between the landfill and the Tribe increases the quality of the data we produce — or the quality of the interpretation from that data.”

His work is still in the assessment phase, but he suspects that remediation may be necessary. “Over the last few years, we’ve put in remote sensing equipment, and done regular analysis on surface water and groundwater,” he reported. “We’ve found some releases, most likely from the landfill, coming into shallow groundwater, and some hints of volatile organic compounds in surface water that originates from the landfill itself…we’re picking up little bits of acetone, some plasticizers, things that indicate origins at the landfill, but are not in concentrations that have been terribly remarkable. But we’re doing an assessment right now, so we’re just simply following those hints to see how bad the problem is…Unfortunately, we see a lot of this in Indian Country, where these types of sites end up adjacent to tribal trust property. In this case, we have what is essentially rural residential property with an industrial site next door…this isn’t where landfills are supposed to go. They’re supposed to be far away from homes and people and children. And this is doubled down on when we look at these in Indian Country, because the Tribe wants to utilize their natural resources to reflect their cultural values. Harvesting the fish, the plants. And when they collect these things and consume them, they’re getting an increased exposure to what’s released by sites like this. So it’s almost like doubling down on the bad. It should have never been located here, because the Tribe was here before the landfill. And these homes, many of them were here before the landfill. And then it deprived the Tribe of the opportunity to harvest some of these things on their own property.”

On the county side of the landfill, there is a network of ten wells, plus gas probes and devices that monitor the depth and pressure of the groundwater. A 2020 report found that the well on the southeast corner of the site showed increased levels of several elements, including iron, manganese, chloride, calcium, sodium, sulfate and arsenic. Yana Garcia, the Secretary for the California Environmental Protection Agency, wrote Supervisors John Haschak and Dan Gjerde a letter on December 13, saying that additional groundwater monitoring locations and an updated inspection plan are part of the landfill renovation that she expects will take about two years. 

On the Rancheria side, McGinnis wants to put in a half-dozen more monitoring wells. “I’ve got three 20-foot wells, and two of them are showing signs of being negatively affected by the landfill,” he said. “The third not being negatively affected actually provides me with a bit of a control. The depth (of the new wells) will actually be dependent on what we find as we drill. It wouldn’t surprise me if we end up going anywhere between 50 and 100 feet.” McGinnis added that the Tribe is open to working with the state, county or federal government to achieve a complete assessment. “And a complete assessment will require wells all around the site, to complement those that already exist,” he said. “The Tribe’s a little bit ahead, because I do have a few monitoring wells I’ve been able to work with. So I can design over here today. But hopefully we can design for the rest of the community soon. And encourage them to put in a system that will provide a complete picture of groundwater conditions around the landfill.” 

It won’t be cheap. “This is not an inexpensive endeavor,” McGinnis acknowledged. “I think that we’re going to see, at least on this side of things, at least another million dollars spent before we have a good handle on it. Expanding the system could double that price. And then cleaning up landfills, if you get lucky and it isn’t much of a problem, you know, it can only be seven figures. If it goes the other way, you just start putting zeros behind things.” He hastened to add that the project is “very much in the assessment phase right now, so I hate to scare anybody. But it’s not ten thousand dollars.” He thinks he could spend half a million dollars on a first phase groundwater assessment, and another half million for soil analysis.

McGinnis said the work has been funded so far mainly by federal grants specific to the Tribe, which has leveraged the funds for more grants from the EPA, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and the Bureau of Reclamation. The Tribe has also received Environmental Justice funding from the State of California, “which I think speaks loudly to what this problem really means,” McGinnis concluded.

Peggy Hoaglin, who founded the Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice over the summer, recalls her history of living close to the landfill. (Hoaglin is not affiliated with the Cahto Tribe.) In the 1980’s, she said the dump caught on fire regularly, causing her to experience exhaustion, headaches, and flu-like symptoms for days afterwards. “When you live under a dump, you think everyone lives under dumps,” she said. In 1993, she called her county supervisor and told him, “I’m chaining myself to that dump, and you’ll never dump on me again. That’s what I did. So I chained myself to that dump, and I went to jail for the very first time in my life.”

Hoaglin attributes her own ongoing health problems, the death of her husband, and illnesses among her neighbors to contaminants in the landfill. I checked with one of the neighbors she mentioned, and that person does not attribute their health problems to the dump, and said their well water has tested clean. 

The Rancheria receives water from the Laytonville County Water District, which tests for a number of industrial contaminants, according to District Manager Jim Shields. The district water is treated for iron, manganese, and arsenic, which are naturally occurring contaminants in the area. About twenty years ago, the district got a grant to upgrade its water treatment plant.

“That water is perfectly safe to use for all purposes,” said Shields. “We do thousands of tests a year. We do tests we don’t even have to do. We’re not even required by any of our regulatory agencies to test for PCB and hexavalent chromium. We do that on our own. We do tests, on a regular basis, for PCBs and chrome 6. I’ve done that from day one. Why do I do it when we don’t have to do it? I do it because I’m a responsible member of this community. I listen to people. If people have concerns over those issues, I’m going to do what I can to ensure and guarantee that there are not those sorts of contamination risks here. In fact, we just completed our annual PCB and chrome 6 tests. They’re very expensive to do, and once again, it came up negative. Especially the test for PCBs. It’s a very broad scale kind of full-gamut test. Never, ever, ever have we ever found any of that in our water.”

Shields says he also tests private wells, where the water is untreated. “We continue to test private drinking wells,” he emphasized. “They are the drinking wells that are immediately adjacent to the landfill. There’s an old well on the rez that’s no longer active. It hasn’t been active on the rez since 1969, because they’ve been on city water since then. So these wells that we test, and we’re primarily testing them for PCBs and chrome 6, they are literally right next door to the landfill, downslope gradient, so that if there’s anything escaping or migrating off of that landfill, boy, most likely, you’re going to see that stuff in those wells.”

Hexavalent chrome is a highly toxic industrial contaminant that has been found in the north county. In 1996, the City of Willits sued Remco Hydraulics over the improper disposal of toxins used in its chrome-plating and manufacturing business. Other lawsuits followed, including one from a family whose five-year-old son died after playing in Baechtel Creek, which was contaminated with chromium. Shields, who is the long-time editor of the Laytonville Observer, says he followed the investigations closely, and he doesn’t think the material was dumped as far north as Laytonville. He recalls hearing from Remco workers, in formal as well as less formal settings.

“Their testimony was, no, we dumped all that stuff down here in Willits,” he recalled. “What my friend said, and it made sense, was, why would we load up chrome 6 and haul it 22 miles north to Laytonville? Why would we do that?”

Still, county Supervisors John Haschak and Dan Gjerde, who represent Laytonville since post-census redistricting shifted parts of Bell Springs Road and Spyrock to the Fourth District, asked the state to review previous studies and conduct more testing, if it’s warranted. The water district signed on to the county’s request. 

“The more testing and investigation of that landfill and the adjacent areas, the better,” Shields declared.

* * *


To the Editor:

Non-tribal Victims of Laytonville Dump/Landfill Ignored Once Again

As Chairperson of the Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice (LAFEJ), I was dismayed by the lack of critical reporting by Sarah Reith in her report, “Cahto Tribe Demands Groundwater Testing at the Defunct Laytonville Landfill,”published in the January 6, 2023, Mendocino County Observer. 

The sole purpose of LAFEJ is to advocate for Laytonville residents who do not live on the Cahto Tribe Rancheria to the South and East of the Laytonville dump/landfill, that is, people who live on the unincorporated land to the North and West which is administered by Mendocino County. Reading Reith’s entire article, you wouldn’t even know there is a whole neighborhood of people living on the unincorporated land to the North of the dump/landfill, and a family ranch to the West.

The only comments from LAFEJ quoted by Reith were from Peggy Hoaglin telling her story of how in the 1980s ash and smoke emanating from dump fires caused her to experience exhaustion, headaches, and flu-like symptoms for days afterwards, and how she protested to close the dump 30 years ago in 1993. Hoaglin’s comments were taken completely out of context by Reith. As we (LAFEJ) informed her, for 25 years the Laytonville dump/landfill operated as an “open burn dump” similar to the “burn pits” in Iraq that have caused severe health problems to US soldiers who served there. Without this important context, Reith has trivialized Hoaglin’s health concerns.

We provided Reith with a health survey conducted in 2018 by the environmental justice group GreenAction that indicated a cancer rate over three times higher in the area around the dump/landfill as the average cancer rate in California. Reith made no mention of this health survey in her article, instead choosing to discount Hoaglin’s health concerns as unsubstantiated because someone she spoke to said their health problems were not attributable to the dump/landfill. Again, by leaving out important context, Reith has trivialized Hoaglin’s health concerns related to the dump/landfill. 

Reading Reith’s report, you wouldn’t know that the Laytonville dump was constructed in 1968 before local dumps were regulated and the dump has no lining on the bottom to prevent rainwater from infiltrating through the household garbage and industrial waste into the groundwater. You also wouldn’t know that the cap built over the dump/landfill to prevent rainwater from flowing through has a history of failure letting rainwater seep in. Without this relevant context that we provided Reith for her report, the general public can’t possibly understand why we Laytonville residents are so concerned about the dump/landfill contaminating groundwater.

Reading Reith’s report, you wouldn’t know that CalRecycle, the State agency charged with managing these old legacy dump/landfills, has falsely claimed that the land “within one mile” North of the dump is “unoccupied,” when in fact there is an entire neighborhood of homes there. Without this relevant context that we provided to Reith, the general public can’t possibly understand why local residents feel so ignored by State authorities. 

The Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice is asking for CalEPA (California Environmental Protection Agency) to provide the same level of support services for people living on the unincorporated land as for people living on the Cahto Rancheria. Currently, CalEPA is working with the Cahto Tribe to put in “additional groundwater monitoring locations” on the Rancheria, but they are providing no such support services for people living on the unincorporated land. In interviews with Cahto Tribe environmental consultant Dietrick McGinnis, and with Laytonville County Water District manager Jim Shields, Reith inadvertently makes our case for us. McGinnis acknowledges that the entire perimeter of the dump/landfill must be tested and that a proper testing regime would cost up to two million dollars. Shields acknowledges that it is the Laytonville County Water District that is testing wells on the unincorporated land adjacent to the dump/landfill even though it is not their responsibility to do so. Residents of Laytonville should not have to depend on the Laytonville County Water District with its limited funds and lack of expertise monitoring toxic waste sites, that is a job for CalEPA.

The people living on the unincorporated land to the North and West of the dump/landfill are not represented by the Cahto Tribe, they are represented by 3rd District Supervisor John Haschak. At the end of Reith’s report, she seems to be satisfied that the Laytonville County Water District’s testing is sufficient, and she seems surprised Supervisor Haschak is requesting that CalEPA support more testing on the unincorporated land adjacent to the dump/landfill. Considering all the pertinent information Reith chose to ignore in her report, it’s no wonder she’s so confused.


Jon Spitz, Chair

Laytonville Alliance For Environmental Justice

* * *


Mr. Spitz has no reason to expect me to transcribe the information he and his colleagues provided me as if only they are in possession of the relevant points.

I did speak with Spitz and three other members of the Laytonville Alliance for Environmental Justice. Spitz assured me that he would provide me with documents backing up the statements Peggy Hoaglin made to me, as well as pictures documenting what she described. What I got instead were letters chastising various people for not doing exactly what LAFEJ wanted them to do; for not agreeing with the group one hundred percent; and for not being qualified, in their eyes, to do the work they think needs to be done. 

During our interview, LAFEJ members treated me to extreme levels of irrelevant minutiae about various agencies, such as how the water board is connected to CalEPA; how monumental it is that someone thought there were pulp mills instead of timber mills in Laytonville; and how years ago, a government agency conducted a survey that was disastrously flawed because one of the people administering it was underaged. But when I asked one member, who has scientific training, to explain some information about chemical testing on a single sheet she gave me from a 2016 report, she barely deigned to acknowledge my question, let alone provide a satisfactory response. I need answers to questions in order to prepare a critical report. 

When I called and emailed GreenAction about their work in Laytonville, including the health survey, I got no response. I can’t just cite a sort-of scientific survey that’s attributed to a pastor and a non-profit advocacy organization. Those aren’t authoritative sources.

As for "trivializing health concerns," Ms. Hoaglin doesn't have any business discussing the health problems of her neighbors, who called me in distress after learning that she had been publicly opining on the causes of their illnesses without their permission. 

The county side of the landfill contains a network of ten wells that are in fact being regularly monitored by the environmental consulting firm SHN on behalf of the county. Plenty of documents about this are publicly available on the State Water Resources Control Board’s Geo Tracker link. I am fairly certain this indicates that CalEPA does not regard the reporting as amateurish. It is very typical for government agencies to outsource this kind of work to consultants, and to cite it in official correspondence, which I relied upon in my rigorously well-sourced article.

It is insulting for Mr. Spitz to say that I “inadvertently” made his case for him when I quoted a reliable source instead of him and his colleagues, as if I have no idea what I am doing when I cite people who are credible instead of those who impose upon me. It is not my job to make anyone’s case for them. I am not a propagandist.

As for the crowning imposition: at the end of our interview, the LAFEJ members kindly offered to show me the landfill, which was just a few minutes away from my next appointment. I soon realized, to my horror, how foolish and naive I had been when I told them where I was going next. After I took a few pictures of the site, all four of them piled into a car and actually followed me to my next interview, which was on tribal land. 

It is extremely difficult for white reporters like me to establish rapport with tribal people, because they have every reason in the world to avoid us. We have a reputation for bringing about unseemly clamor, which was well-deserved in this case.

It’s the only thing about the story that I am ashamed of: that I wasn’t quick or aggressive enough to chase away a carload of pushy white people so I could present myself on my own merits, as respectfully as I could.

But it is obvious that no one has any grounds to expect respectful treatment from LAFEJ, unless they are content to serve as the organization’s publicity arm, treating all other sources with utmost skepticism. All they wanted me to do was act as an uncritical conduit for their point of view and their priorities. Now they have chosen to denounce me in public for failing to fulfill their unreasonable expectation.

The only thing I am confused about is why they would expect to be taken seriously.

(Jim Shields is the Mendocino County Observer’s editor and publisher,, the long-time district manager of the Laytonville County Water District, and is also chairman of the Laytonville Area Municipal Advisory Council. Listen to his radio program “This and That” every Saturday at 12 noon on KPFN 105.1 FM, also streamed live:

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