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Small Town Haunted by Pollutants, Birth Defects

Tue, 12/22/2009 - 5:37am
NOAKI SCHWARTZ, Associated Press Writer

KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. (AP) - Maricela Mares-Alatorre was well aware of the industrial and agricultural pollutants that surrounded her as she grew up in this tiny farm town just three miles from the largest toxic waste dump in the West.

Her parents had founded People for Clean Air and Water two decades ago to successfully fight a proposed incinerator at the dump. It was an early but defining struggle for the environmental justice movement.

Years later, with infant deaths and birth defects mounting in this Spanish speaking community, Mares-Alatorre worried that those same poisons would damage her unborn baby.

Now she and other activists will take the battle to the Kings County Board of Supervisors Tuesday, urging a rejection of the proposed expansion of Chemical Waste Management Inc.'s 1,600 acre facility. In addition to recent infant deaths and birth defects, they point to the high asthma and cancer rates in this largely Latino town of 1,500 people.

Of 20 children known born here between September 2007 to November 2008, five had a cleft in their palate or lips, according to a health survey by community activists. "That just raises a red flag," said Mares-Alatorre.

Owners of the waste facility have offered to fund a health study, but they say there's no evidence linking the dump to the maladies. Other potential culprits are pesticides sprayed on nearby fields, discolored drinking water and exhaust from Interstate 5, the West Coast's major north-south highway, that borders the town.

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. Clefts of the lip or palate routinely occur in fewer than 1-in-800 births in California, according to state health statistics.

Activists say the birth defects bolster their argument that the facility should not be allowed to grow pending an investigation. The Board of Supervisors recently directed the county health department to ask the state to oversee that study, but any results will not be known prior to Tuesday's board vote on the expansion.

Chemical Waste's proposed growth has been slowly moving through a permitting process that involves local, state and federal regulators. Activists say they are prepared to sue if the supervisors approve the project.

For their part, Chemical Waste officials say they support a health probe but not a delay in the approval process. 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 Chemical Waste spokeswoman Katherine 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."

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.

About 400 truckloads of waste are hauled per day to the dump. In 2007, the last year for which complete statistics are available, that meant 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.

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 wasteplant 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."

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