Community fights toxic waste
Residents of Kettleman City believe chemical waste is leading to an increase of birth defects in their community.
This story is adapted from a broadcast audio segment; use audio player to listen to story in its entirety.
Kettleman City, California wants answers. Babies in the poor and largely Latino town are being born with deformities and residents want to know why. Many of the 1,500 residents of Kettleman City, which lies about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, work in agriculture or service jobs. The town's other major employer is a sprawling chemical waste site.
For decades Kettleman City residents have fought Chemical Waste Management over proposed expansions of its landfill. The dispute has included charges of environmental racism and repeated concerns that the toxic dump is causing health problems.
Now, people suspect chemical waste is to blame for the recent spike in birth defects. Five area babies born in a 15-month period in 2007 and 2008 suffered severe birth defects, including cleft palate, heart problems and developmental delays.
Maria Saucedo, a 17-year resident of the area, gave birth to one of those children -- a daughter named Ashley.
"When Ashley was born, they told me she would make it a month," said Saucedo through a translator. "She wouldn't live to two months. But time passed and Ashley was five, six, seven months. I thought that she would be with me longer. But when she got to be ten-months-old, I could see that what they told me was true - that she was going to die, and she did."
Saucedo was among the residents who crowded a recent emotional meeting in Kettleman City. Health officials shared preliminary results of an investigation of the birth defects and possible causes.
Reporter Zaidee Stavely with Radio Bilingue was at that meeting. She's also visited the chemical waste facility, which covers some 1,600 acres.
"The Chemical Waste Management facility there in Kettleman Hills is the largest toxic waste landfill in the Western United States," explains Stavely. "It takes paints, oils; it's actually the only facility in the state that is allowed to take PCBs.
"The liquid PCBs there are washed out of old transmitters from telephone lines and florescent tubes, and the metal containers are dumped there in the landfill in Kettleman City. You go in and it's basically just hills upon hills of landfill. It's hard to distinguish between the natural mountains of the area and dirt mounds that are covering old landfills. And it's both a regular garbage dump and also a hazardous waste landfill. So you have several different sections and it's thousands of acres."
According to Stavely, Chemical Waste Management conducted several studies that showed their waste wasn't affecting the health of the community. But community members and their environmental allies say the studies were not intensive enough. Evidence of tainted drinking water was found.
"Drinking water quality for the past several years has been found tainted," said Stavely. "There's high levels of arsenic in the water, and there has been in the past high levels of benzene, as well in the water. They think that the benzene could possibly be from past oil operations in the area. I know that also benzene is more frequently occurring near hazardous waste landfills."
While residents believe the birth defects in their community are due to the toxic waste, public health officials, who looked statistics from 1987 to 2008, concluded that the total number over the 22-year period in Kettleman City was not unusual. But California public health official Dr. Rick Kreutzer, promised further study.
"That promise was very well received," said Stavely. "Community members and also mothers said, 'thank you, that's what we want; we're so glad the public health department is finally in our community after 50 months of asking for an investigation.' And the community members were insistent that the public health department also look into environmental risk factors."
Chemical Waste Management has asked for an expansion to about 63 acres for an additional hazardous waste landfill. Community members have asked the government to deny the company permits until the investigation into the birth defects is complete.
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