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What's Killing the Babies of Kettleman City?

Maybe it's the toxic waste dump. Maybe the pesticides, or the diesel fumes, or the arsenic. How a small-town mystery could change the way we look at pollution.

[Editor's Note: See a related photo essay here.]

THE FIRST BABY'S NAME was America. She was born in September 2007, with Down syndrome, two heart murmurs, and part of her upper lip missing. She couldn't suck from a nipple, so her mother, Magdalena Romero, would stay up through the night to feed her with a special tube. America showed pleasure in music and delighted in being held by her four siblings. Magdalena thinks they felt a special tenderness for her because of her vulnerability.

Hospital officials told Magdalena that the baby wouldn't live a year, but she didn't want to believe it. Then, one morning when America was nearly five months old, her lips turned purple. Concluding that paramedics would consider a rescue futile, Magdalena drove the baby to the hospital herself and insisted that all efforts be made to save her. For a few days, America survived, tethered to machines. Then she died in her mother's arms.

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A few flowers struggle to grow in the tiny patch of soil in front of the Romeros' house in Kettleman City, California, a farmworker community halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco. Outside, the powder blue trim is peeling; inside, the house looks sparse, unfinished, except for an alcove off the living room that has become a memorial to America. On the wall hangs a carefully embroidered cloth with her name and birth date in red script and her tiny hand- and footprints rendered in pink; rosary beads are draped over the frame. Nearby, three photos of America sit atop a VCR—they're typical baby pictures, filled with pink and lace, that startle because of America's missing lip. Magdalena stands in front of the shrine; her lips form a slight smile, but her eyes look uncertain. "You feel all the time, every hour, that something is missing," she says. Magdalena, now 33, dared to have another child, whom she also named America. The toddler is healthy, but Alondra, her six-year-old sister, keeps asking, "Is this baby going to die too?"

Kettleman City

There are between 30 and 64 births each year in Kettleman City. In 15 of the 22 years since California's public health department began tracking birth defects, all babies in the town were healthy, and in five other years, only one birth defect occurred. But in the last two years and 10 months, residents say, at least 11 babies have been born with serious birth defects. Three eventually died; another was stillborn. Most have cleft lips or palates, and some have other, graver maladies. "When my child was born," Magdalena says, "I thought she was the only one with a deformity. But when it began happening to other babies, I realized there was something abnormal in my community."

 

Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who is related to Maura by marriage, has been battling Kettleman City's hazardous-waste dump for years; her son Miguel, 15, is part of a youth group called Kids Protecting our Planet. Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who is related to Maura by marriage, has been battling Kettleman City's hazardous-waste dump for years; her son Miguel, 15, is part of a youth group called Kids Protecting our Planet.

KETTLEMAN CITY—a dot on the map so insignificant that it is technically not even a town but a "census-designated place"—rose out of the scrublands of the western San Joaquin Valley in the late 1920s, following the discovery of oil in the nearby Kettleman Hills. The second-longest street in town, all half a mile of it, is named General Petroleum Avenue, and the third-longest is Standard Oil Avenue. Those names are as close to wealth as the town gets. Nearly half its 1,500 residents live below the poverty line, according to the 2000 census. A couple of miles south on Highway 41, at the junction with Interstate 5, sits an agglomeration of motels, gas stations, an In-N-Out Burger, and a Starbucks, but the town itself has no pharmacy, high school, or movie theater. It also lacks sidewalks, a supermarket, and a clean drinking-water supply (though the 444-mile California Aqueduct, which conveys water from the Sierras to dozens of Southern California cities, runs just past its border). Most Kettleman families travel 32 miles to Hanford, the county seat, to shop for food and bottled water.

Kettleman City mothers—including Magdalena Romero, left, and Maura Alatorre, center—show photos of their babies to epa officials. Kettleman City mothers—including Magdalena Romero, left, and Maura Alatorre, center—show photos of their babies to EPA officials.

Kettleman City does have a few convenience and liquor stores, three well-attended churches (Catholic, evangelical, and Pentecostal), and one tiny restaurant, La Perla, where the most popular menu item is a $3 burrito. Then again, popularity at La Perla is a relative concept; on most days it attracts only five or six patrons. Many families hail from the same Mexican town—La Piedad, in the state of Michoacán. Many have lived in Kettleman City for three generations; others arrived in the last few years. Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a 38-year-old teacher in a GED program for farmworkers, is one of a tiny number of residents with a college degree. She describes Kettleman City as having "a Mayberry feeling with a Latino twist—that's why I stay. Even if I left, that doesn't mean the problems get solved. There are still vulnerable people here who can't speak for themselves, and we're supposed to abandon them?"

The "problems" are not just the recent wave of birth defects, but the many possible explanations for it, and, most worrisome of all, the prospect that the reason will never be identified. That uncertainty—which no one quite wants to admit—hovers over the town like smog.

Alatorre with her son, Emmanuel, who was born with a cleft lip. Alatorre with her son, Emmanuel, who was born with a cleft lip.

Despite Kettleman City's remote setting amid almond groves and tomato fields, its residents are exposed to a startling array of toxic chemicals (PDF). Nearly 100 trucks spewing diesel fumes roll through town daily on Highway 41, and many more come by on Interstate 5. More than half of Kettleman City's labor force consists of farmworkers who are routinely exposed to toxic pesticides, and residents can smell the chemicals sprayed on the fields that border the town on three sides. Kettleman City's two municipal wells are contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic and benzene. And there are projects in the works to build a massive natural gas power plant nearby, as well as to deposit 500,000 tons per year of Los Angeles sewage sludge on farmland a few miles from the town.

But the biggest environmental villain, in the view of local residents, is Waste Management Inc., which operates a vast hazardous-waste dump three miles from town. Waste Management is the nation's largest waste-disposal company, and the Kettleman Hills landfill is the biggest toxic-waste dump west of Alabama, where another Waste Management facility is located in another poor, minority community. California's two other toxic-waste dumps are also located near Latino farmworker towns.

A wooden cross made by a friend hangs in one of the Romero household's two shrines to baby America, who died at five months. A wooden cross made by a friend hangs in one of the Romero household's two shrines to baby America, who died at five months.

Last year the Kettleman site accepted 356,000 tons of hazardous waste, consisting of tens of thousands of chemical compounds including asbestos, pesticides, caustics, petroleum products, and about 11,000 tons of materials contaminated with PCBs—now-banned chemicals linked to cancer and birth defects. Waste Management has been seeking permission since 2006 to increase the dump's size by nearly 50 percent.

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