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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.

Kettleman City residents have been fighting that proposal, as they've fought other Waste Management projects over the years. In the early 1990s, the town became something of a cause célèbre when it resisted plans to build a toxic-waste incinerator at the dump. (Waste Management ended up withdrawing its application.)

Children at Templo Betel, one of three churches in the town of 1,500 Children at Templo Betel, one of three churches in the town of 1,500.

Among the organizers in that case was Bradley Angel, a 56-year-old Long Island-reared Greenpeace activist who went on to run a San Francisco-based environmental nonprofit called Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. Angel continued to follow events in Kettleman, and in 2007, after a battle over Waste Management's application to continue storing PCBs at Kettleman Hills, he proposed doing a health survey of the town. Greenaction workers and two local environmental groups devised a 36-question survey and started knocking on doors.

What Angel expected to find was an abundance of cancer and asthma, diseases that are found at higher rates in places with substantial air pollution and that are prevalent in Kettleman City. But by the time volunteers had spoken to about 200 residents, they'd learned that five babies born over a 14-month period had cleft palates and other serious birth defects, and three of those babies had died. Since they'd counted only about 25 births during that period, they believed they had uncovered a stunningly large birth-defect cluster. Angel considered the findings so alarming that in 2008 he called off the survey to focus on publicizing the birth defects.

Ivan Rodriguez, 29, with his son, Ivan, who was born with a cleft palate Ivan Rodriguez, 29, with his son, Ivan, who was born with a cleft palate.

For many months, he got no traction. Government and Waste Management officials repeatedly dismissed his calls for a state investigation of the birth defects. Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, Waste Management's chief medical officer, told the Hanford Sentinel in July 2009, "I'll make a guess that you'll not find that cluster, that it doesn't exist...There are some birth defects, but I'm going to bet there's no unifying cause." Three months later, Kings County health officer Michael MacLean testified at a county planning commission meeting: "If the United States doesn't know what causes most birth defects, what do you think is the probability that we're going to figure this out in [these] cases? We will only find what might possibly have caused this. We're going to end up with the same thing we started with."

Farm laborers heading to work in the blueberry fields Farm laborers heading to work in the blueberry fields.

The culture clash between Kettleman City's farmworkers and the white ranchers who hold power in Kings County was on full display at a Board of Supervisors meeting to consider Waste Management's application in December. About 150 Kettleman City residents rode buses chartered by activist groups to attend the meeting in Hanford. They were greeted by a few dozen police, including a K-9 unit, and a few hundred Waste Management employees dressed in green company T-shirts, who filled the rear third of the auditorium. The Kettleman residents who testified were alternately angry, respectful, dignified, and profane. "We're people just like you," said 15-year-old Miguel Alatorre, leader of a youth group that helped conduct the health survey. "We're not dogs...We're tired of all this dumping and toxic waste. We want it out." The supervisors listened impassively.

It wasn't until the campaign yielded a few newspaper stories that officials started to pay attention. In December, the Board of Supervisors voted for a state investigation into the cluster. But a week later, it also unanimously approved Waste Management's expansion application. When I asked supervisor Joe Neves whether Kettleman City's health problems ought to rule out the dump's expansion, he seemed to view the question as an attack on modernity itself. "Does that mean that we shouldn't be growing crops?" he asked. "Does that mean we should just let everything go back to nature?"

Oil storage tanks next to the California Aqueduct Oil storage tanks next to the California Aqueduct.

In truth, the approval was likely motivated by more practical concerns. Under California law, county governments can tax dumps by as much as 10 percent of their revenue from hazardous waste; Waste Management's "franchise taxes" to Kings County amounted to more than $1.6 million last year, and the company paid another $380,000 in property tax, making it one of the county's largest taxpayers. The expansion application still needed signoffs from several other government agencies, but Angel's threat to tie up the permit in appeals was starting to hint of futility. Meanwhile, Kettleman City residents kept reporting more birth defects; by last spring, Angel was counting 11.

Little Ivan in his Sunday best Little Ivan in his Sunday best.

Then the activists got a break. Angel had been lobbying the Obama-appointed regional EPA director, Jared Blumenfeld, and in January Blumenfeld announced his office would review its monitoring of the waste dump. (Blumenfeld also visited Kettleman City and met with the mothers.) Three days later, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced that the state Department of Public Health would investigate the birth defects. Soon afterward, an EPA spokesman said the agency wouldn't approve Waste Management's application "unless we are confident that the facility does not present a health risk to the community." California Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein called for a moratorium on the expansion and sought federal funds for a water-treatment plant that would end the town's reliance on contaminated well water. At least for the time being, all this has given the people of Kettleman City hope.

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