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Probes target what ails Kettleman City kids

Ivan Hernandez, 1, has undergone two surgeries after being born with a cleft palate. Hernandez was among five babies born with cleft palates in the tiny San Joaquin Valley, California, community of Kettleman City during a 14-month span beginning in September 2007. Residents point to a nearby hazardous waste facility as the cause of the cleft-palate cluster. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Ivan Hernandez, 1, has undergone two surgeries after being born with a cleft palate. Hernandez was among five babies born with cleft palates in the tiny San Joaquin Valley, California, community of Kettleman City during a 14-month span beginning in September 2007. Residents point to a nearby hazardous waste facility as the cause of the cleft-palate cluster. (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/MCT) MCT

For months, Kettleman City residents and activists clamored for an investigation into a rash of birth defects and infant deaths.

To little avail. The pleas of a tiny, largely Hispanic community got little traction with distant government officials — until the last few weeks.

Now, agencies ranging from state health department to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are rushing to examine the concerns of a poor Kings County town situated only a few miles from the largest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi.

Why the sudden flood of interest? Academic, political and other experts say the issue finally reached a head — influenced by a lawsuit over landfill expansion, in-your-face activism by residents and environmental groups and a crescendo of publicity about the town’s complaints.

“It just becomes a critical mass,” said Simon Weffer-Elizondo, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California at Merced.

Robin DeLugan, assistant professor of anthropology at UC Merced, said the families’ now well-publicized stories are too compelling to ignore:

“It’s hard for the appropriate levels of government to turn a blind eye.”

But to hear the residents and activists tell it, that’s exactly what had happened. They say they repeatedly asked government agencies to investigate why six babies were born with birth defects in a 15-month period starting in late 2007. Three babies died.

Complaints became more public and heated last year as activists and residents in the town of about 1,500 protested expansion of the Waste Management Inc. landfill about three miles away. Some suspect birth defects are linked to toxic waste stored there.

Kings County officials approved the expansion in December. Environmental groups countered with a lawsuit to block those plans.

Over the past few months, news media outlets carried stories and pictures of babies born with cleft palates. Photos and videos of protests and families surfaced on YouTube and Facebook.

While few official pronouncements were made, the issue was gaining steam in government offices. A new EPA regional administrator started work. And the governor — following a briefing on a health department review of the birth defects — last week ordered an investigation.

Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA’s new administrator for the Pacific Southwest region, also toured the landfill and met with several families this week.

Blumenfeld has said that he will place special emphasis on historically underserved and vulnerable communities such as Kettleman City, and also will address inequitable environmental burdens.

He also has ordered an internal investigation into the EPA’s handling of complaints about the landfill. Blumenfeld declined to be interviewed for this story.

Experts watching the drama unfold have similar theories about why agencies now are reacting at lightning speed.

Professor Julie Sze, founding director of the Environmental Justice Project for UC Davis’ John Muir Institute for the Environment, said Kettleman City’s history is an important factor.

Back in the 1990s, Kettleman City protests helped block plans for a toxic-waste incinerator. In 2006, Pacific Gas & Electric Co. agreed to pay $295 million to settle claims in Kettleman City and other areas that water supplies had been contaminated by chromium 6, the cancer-causing chemical made famous in the movie “Erin Brockovich.”

In the environmental justice movement, Kettleman City’s story is familiar — and demonstrates residents’ organizing skills.

“The residents have been politicized around the issue of environmental health and inequality,” Sze said. “The birth defects fall into that already pretty defined experience and framing of the issues.”

DeLugan, the UC Merced professor who is involved in the area of environmental justice, said the community’s ability to network with other groups gave it more clout.

“All of a sudden, their voice is stronger,” she said.

Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, based in San Francisco, is one of the groups working with the Kettleman City community.

Bradley Angel, the group’s executive director, believes sustained protests and media attention eventually galvanized agencies into action.Tom Holyoke, assistant professor of political science at Fresno State University, agreed.

“They’ve been able to make use — politically — of the birth defects,” he said. And “nothing gets attention like a lawsuit.”

The issue rose on the EPA’s radar because the Obama administration, after a year to settle in, is ready to look at companies with possible environmental problems, Holyoke said.

County and landfill officials say they also played a role in the recent state and federal response.

Kit Cole, spokeswoman for Waste Management, said the company has pushed since last summer for an investigation into the birth-defect cases. The fact that the company and Greenaction agree on that “is something the regulators can’t ignore,” she said.

Multiple studies show that the landfill is not a hazard to human health or the environment, Cole said. But, she added, “the reality is these families in Kettleman City deserve answers.”

Richard Valle, who represents the area on the Kings County Board of Supervisors, said he has long listened to residents’ concerns. He also noted that the board formally asked the state to investigate birth defects in December — the same month supervisors approved the landfill expansion. He believes that request helped propel the state’s recent announcement.

“This has been a long, drawn-out process ... this is the safety net that I’ve been looking for,” Valle said.

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