Residents of a Californian city situated near landfill are suing health authorities over continuing instances of serious birth defects, including cleft palates and lips.
They say the Chemical Waste Management's Kettleman Hills Facility, three-and-a-half miles from the city, is adding to toxins in the community's air, water and soil. Kettleman City is located just off Interstate 5 about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
The landfill, the largest hazardous waste facility in the western United States, is the only one in the state permitted to accept cancer-causing PCBs.
As it is expected to run out of room in 2011, it is seeking to expand the area further, and the King's County authorities obliged readily, despite stiff opposition from the impoverished community of 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking farmworkers of Kettleman.
The residents and activists who have conducted health surveys that say at least five of the 20 babies born in the community between September 2007 and November 2009 suffered serious birth defects, among them cleft palates and lips. Kings County authorities say 64 babies were born during that period, and six had birth defects of various kinds - nothing much to worry, is the point.
And so the County Board of Supervisors dismissed calls for a full investigation into the reported birth defects before approving a proposal in December to expand the landfill.
According to the lawsuit, which was filed last Thursday by the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, supervisors violated the California Environmental Quality Act by approving the project before investigating the cause and extent of birth defects in Kettleman City, among other factors. Five babies were born with birth defects within a 14-month period, and three have died.
"Because the county approved the project before conducting any analysis to determine whether the Kettleman Hills facility caused or contributed to the birth defects in Kettleman City, the county was unable to make an informed decision on the potential environmental impacts of the project," the lawsuit states.
Kettleman City residents reported the incidence of birth defects at a press conference in July and demanded an independent health investigation be conducted before the county decided on the proposal to expand the landfill.
Supervisor Richard Valle, who represents Kettleman City, responded Dec. 15, announcing that the county had sent a letter to the state, asking for an official health investigation.
Valle said the board's request for a health investigation proves the county shares the community's concerns.
"I think we sent the message loud and clear that the county is concerned about the birth defects," Valle said in a phone interview.
In a late action, Govenor Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the state Department of Public Health to conduct a comprehensive study of the community's environmental and health issues, and the report could be out next week.
Jared Blumenfeld, regional director of the the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency visited Kettleman City on Wednesday for a three-hour tour that included a trip to the toxic waste dump and emotional private meetings with mothers whose babies had birth defects.
Blumenfeld declined to comment about his conversations with the women except to say, "It was a really good meeting. They were able to show their feelings."
A week ago, Kings County authorities warned Kettleman City residents that their water supply has levels of arsenic above federal drinking water standards of 10 micrograms per liter. County officials say the arsenic is naturally occurring.
"This is not an emergency," health officials said in a letter released Jan. 29. "However, some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the maximum contaminant level over the years may experience skin damage or circulatory system problems, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer."