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Farm town demands answers on birth defects

Toxic City
Maura Andrade-Alatorre holds her now two-year-old son Emmanuel, who was born with a cleft palate, at her home in Kettleman City, Calif. Of 20 children known born there between September 2007 to November 2008, five had a cleft in their palate or lips, according to a survey by community activists. Reed Saxon / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A county board in central California approved the expansion of the largest toxic-waste dump in the West, despite concerns about an increase in birth defects in a nearby farming town.

The Kings County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday upheld an earlier decision to allow Chemical Waste Management to expand its 1,600-acre facility near Kettleman City in the San Joaquin Valley.

The proposal still needs state and federal approval.

Community members in the largely Spanish-speaking town about three hours north of Los Angeles urged the board to reject the expansion after discovering an alarming increase in birth defects and infant deaths.

The dump’s owners say there’s no evidence linking the facility to the birth defects.

“I think the board vote today shows that they feel like the facility is safe and has been thoroughly reviewed throughout this long process,” said Katherine Cole, spokeswoman for Chemical Waste Management.

Environmental activists and residents in the town of 1,500 called the vote disappointing.

The board said the county and state have the authority to revoke the permits if a link is shown between the birth defects and the waste site. The board previously asked the state to conduct a health investigation,

“That’s ridiculous,” said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who heads the group People for Clean Air and Water. “That’s like that expression closing the barn door after the horse has been let out. The investigation could take six months to two years.”

PCBs stored there
About 400 truckloads of waste are hauled to the dump each day. In 2007, the last year for which complete statistics were available, that totaled more than 3 million pounds of lead compounds, nearly 2 million pounds of asbestos and more than 118,000 pounds of arsenic, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. It’s the state’s only facility that accepts cancer-causing PCBs.

Most of the waste comes from California, with smaller amounts from other states and even Mexico.

Of 20 children known to have been born in Kettleman City between September 2007 and November 2008, five had a cleft in their palate or lips, according to a health survey by activists. Three of those children have since died.

Statewide, clefts of the lip or palate routinely occur in fewer than one in 800 births, according to California health statistics.

Along with those health problems, activists point to the high asthma and cancer rates in the community.

The dump’s owners support a health study and have even offered to pay for one. Other potential health culprits include pesticides sprayed on nearby fields, discolored drinking water and exhaust from traffic on Interstate 5, the West Coast’s major north-south highway that borders Kettleman City.

After years of fighting the waste company, activists have become distrustful, accusing it and public agencies of holding meetings at inconvenient times and places and refusing to translate documents into Spanish.

They have also threatened to sue if supervisors approved the project.

Chemical Waste Management is Kings County’s biggest business, providing as much as $3 million a year to the county general fund. Kettleman City community leaders complain that little of the money comes back to the town, which has no sidewalks or stop signs.

Three infants died
Mares-Alatorre, 37, had a healthy baby girl but one of her relatives wasn't as fortunate.

"A month before my child was born I was told he was going to have problems — he was going to be born with cleft palate, some deformity in his nose and part of his brain missing," said Maura Andrade-Alatorre, 25.

Andrade-Alatorre's son was born with severe birth defects. He survived but three infants born with similar problems have since died.

The company says it's been working to be more open and engaged with the community, trying to get a medical clinic in town and pledging $500,000 so the water district can provide cleaner water.

"The hard part is there's a legacy of bad feelings, there's a high degree of complexity," said Cole.

Years of public battles have hardened activists who have accused the company and public agencies of holding meetings at inconvenient times and places too far away and refusing to translate documents into Spanish.

Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle said the recent vote asking the state to investigate "shows the county is listening."

County's biggest business
Chemical Waste is the county's biggest business, contributing as much as $3 million a year to the county's general fund. Kettleman City community leaders complain that little of the money comes back to town.

Streets lack sidewalks and stop signs. Dogs roam freely. Water is often murky when it flows from the tap, forcing many to rely on bottled water. The air can be hard to breathe because of dust and pesticides. Residents say their clothes reek of chemicals after being outside.

One example of what is buried here is part of 2,000 tons of battery waste hauled from an American-owned recycling plant in Mexico. For years, piles of the rusted batteries had leaked toxins in Mexico.

Residents rose up to complain of children born with lead poisoning and, even, missing brains because of waste plant pollution there. Eventually the Mexican government and the EPA stepped in and paid to have some of the waste sent back to the U.S. where part of it was buried in Kettleman.

While Chemical Waste officials say the battery waste was carefully disposed of — California's hazardous waste regulations are the nation's most stringent — the irony of it going from one struggling Spanish-speaking community rife with birth defects to another was not lost on activists.

Andrade-Alatorre is raising her son, Emmanuel, 2, who is doing better than predicted. He is a slight boy whose upper lip is marked with a puckered scar. He has started to walk but struggles to control the right side of his body and falls a lot.

"It's really hard when you have a son that's born with problems," she said, adding she still considers the family lucky. "Thank God that my son is better now and my family sees him and they don't say anything about him."