FRESNO, Calif. — State health officials said Tuesday they found nothing unusual about the rate of infant birth defects in an impoverished San Joaquin Valley farm town located next to the West's largest toxic waste dump.
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The officials told a packed meeting of the Kings County Board of Supervisors that they had discovered no common cause for the birth abnormalities and facial defects among children in Kettleman City, prompting anguished comments from the audience.
"It's important to keep in mind that this is a preliminary finding, and we are going to be in the community gathering additional information," said Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of the California Department of Public Health. "Our interest is trying to find some answers for these families if we can."
California's two U.S. senators pressed for answers as well, calling for a halt to the proposed expansion of the Chemical Waste Management Inc. landfill until a cause is found for the birth defects.
"I am very concerned about the recent surge in birth defects," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. Sen. Barbara Boxer also said the health concerns deserved a closer look.
Kettleman City saw an average of 1.09 birth defects per 100 live births between 1987 and 2008, Reilly said. The rate was not unusually high when compared to a rate of 0.94 for the surrounding five-county region between 1987 and 2007, he added. Regional data for 2008 is not yet available.
A survey done by Greenaction, an environmental justice group, found that of 20 children born in the area from September 2007 to November 2008, five had defects including clefts in their palates or lips.
County officials recently said a sixth child was born with birth defects in roughly the same period.
Community members blasted officials for drawing conclusions before interviewing mothers whose children have undergone surgeries to repair fissures in their upper lips.
"This was a bunch of guys up at the state fiddling around with statistics on the computer and slapping it together in a rough report," said resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, whose niece's son was born two years ago with severe birth defects. "This wasn't an in-depth look at anything going on in town."
Many residents have blamed the health problems on the hazardous waste landfill and have rallied to stop its proposed expansion, which needs state and federal approval.
Officials of Chemical Waste Management Inc. said they welcomed the state scrutiny and were confident it would show their operation was not causing health problems.
"Our Kettleman Hills facility is safe, and we are proud of our 30-year legacy of safety and environmental stewardship," company spokeswoman Helen Herrera said. "With so many other potential environmental exposures in the area, this is just the first step in an ongoing process."
The landfill is a major employer in the largely Spanish-speaking community of 1,500 people along Interstate 5, the main artery linking Northern and Southern California.
Every day, thousands of diesel trucks pass by Kettleman City on the highway. In addition, the town is bisected by high-tension power lines, and many residents work in nearby fields sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
Last month, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the health department and the state EPA to conduct a full investigation, including interviews with residents, and reviews of soil samples and medical records. Reilly said his team planned to speak with relatives of children with birth defects.
Last week, Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, visited the area, toured the dump and promised to ensure all regulatory, enforcement and permitting procedures had been properly followed.
Federal EPA spokeswoman Kathleen Johnson said Tuesday her agency and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control sent inspectors to the landfill Monday to see if existing permit requirements were being met.
"EPA's position remains that we will not issue a permit to Chemical Waste Management unless we are confident that the facility does not present a health risk to the community," she said.
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