Hear from sick neighbors of the infamous Castaic landfill


Jennifer Elkins says her youngest son (center) and his two siblings get bloody noses regularly, and they run to the car covering their mouths (because the air smells so putrid) when she picks them up from school. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

In 2023, Abigail DeSesa started feeling sick every day.

“It feels like there's a weight on your chest, and it's laboursome to breathe. That gives you the nausea [and] instant pounding headache,” she says.

She began to experience tremors, and apologized in embarrassment when her hands shook. After she and her husband drove to the beach one day, she realized how bad her symptoms had gotten.

“I just started randomly crying, and he's like, ‘What is wrong?’ And I said, ‘I feel good. I feel good. I don't know what this feels like anymore,’” she says. “It was so shocking.”

DeSesa lives fewer than two miles from the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, in a neighborhood of Castaic called Val Verde. It’s a bedroom community of a couple thousand Latino and white working-class homeowners, wedged between the 5 and 126 freeways. She’s called Val Verde home for 25 years.

Abigail DeSesa’s rescued giant tortoise, Mikey, died last year shortly after other residents started experiencing symptoms. Photo courtesy of Abigail DeSesa.

DeSesa and some of her neighbors say that in the past year, they started experiencing extreme vertigo, chest pains, gastrointestinal issues, eczema, and other health challenges. Even their pets were dying — DeSesa runs a tortoise rescue and has seen three of them die on her property.

“Anyone who knows about tortoises know they live longer than you do. So that's really suspicious,” she says.

After just three hours in Val Verde, this reporter developed a headache, chest pressure, dizziness, and a sore throat. They all disappeared immediately upon driving away. All of these symptoms can come from exposure to benzene and carbon tetrachloride. LA County officials have found elevated levels of both.

Daryl Kratz (left) gets so dizzy that he hasn’t been able to drive since last year. Susan Evans (right) says her breathing troubles and muscle weakness make the grocery trips more challenging. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

The South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) told KCRW in a statement that the uptick in resident complaints — nearly 10,000 of them — started about a year ago. That’s shortly after Waste Connections, the company that runs the landfill, discovered a rare chemical reaction beneath the surface in 2022. But the problem goes back much further.

In one older section of the waste site, a rare underground chemical reaction is heating up the toxic gasses and liquids. Landfill operators noticed the problem almost two years ago. The company didn’t tell air quality officials until this past October.

The Chiquita Canyon Landfill has been operating for more than five decades. Photo by Caleigh Wells.

SCAQMD officials took video footage late last year of trash juice geysers and bubbling ponds of black liquid seeping from beneath the surface. They slapped the landfill with more than 130 legal violations, demanding the company fix whatever’s wrong. The EPA is pushing for the solutions too.

In January, SCAQMD presented photos and videos they took of the landfill, including geysers of trash liquid and black, bubbling leachate. Photo courtesy of SCAQMD.

After multiple requests, landfill reps refused to comment for this story. But the Chiquita Canyon Landfill’s website says it is doing what it can to reduce odors. It lists dozens of actions it’s already taken or plans to take to meet SCAQMD’s demands. In its last monthly community meeting, a landfill representative said they’d consider paying people to leave. 

“Why do we have to give up our lives and our home and everything that we've worked for and invested in because they can't get their act together?” says resident Jennifer Elkins.

If the residents stay, it could take a while for the landfill to “get its act together.”

“What would happen here is people being relocated for an extended period of time,” says lawyer Michael Parks, who is representing the residents. “There's no turn-the-knob-and-all-the-pollution-stops. And that's the real problem here.”

Relocating might be the only option left. But until financial relief arrives, many residents here can’t afford to leave.

“It's a slow-motion disaster that's going to keep getting worse before it gets better,” says Parks.



Caleigh Wells