EPA fines Kettleman's toxic waste dump $300,000

FRESNO — A vast toxic waste dump at the center of a birth defects controversy in Central California has been fined more than $300,000 for allowing cancer-causing chemicals to leach into the soil, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday.

Residents near the Kettleman Hills landfill previously have expressed concerns that the largest hazardous waste dump in the West was linked to a high rate of birth abnormalities among infants.

However, state officials said last week they couldn't pinpoint a common cause for the health problems in the community.

The dump's parent company Waste Management issued a statement Tuesday saying extensive monitoring had confirmed the small concentrations of PCBs — a now-banned transformer fluid — were isolated to an area adjacent to a storage and flushing building.

The material "did not present any risk to public health or the environment," said Brian Bowen, Waste Management's director of environmental protection.

Still, local mothers wondered if the soil issue might have affected the development of their children.

"If they're polluting inside that dump and putting their own workers at risk, what can people in the community expect?" asked Magdalena Romero, 34, whose daughter, America, died a few months after she was born with a cleft palate and other health problems three years ago.

"The real question is what comes of this," she said.

Landfill operator Chemical Waste Management was hit with a $302,100 fine after failing to clean up soil tainted with spilled PCBs, placing workers at a higher risk of exposure, EPA officials said.

The facility is one of just 10 dumps nationwide that handles PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls.

"Companies charged with safely disposing of society's most toxic materials need to rigorously follow the protective laws established to secure both the public safety and public trust," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest.

The landfill is a few miles from Kettleman City, an impoverished San Joaquin Valley farm town where 11 cases of cleft palates and other birth defects have been reported since 2007.

EPA officials did not immediately say whether the disposal problems had any ties to health problems but noted the company was in the final stages of completing a study evaluating the potential human health or environmental risks if PCBs migrated offsite.

Kettleman City is a community of 1,500 people along Interstate 5, the busy freeway linking Northern and Southern California. The town is crisscrossed by high-tension power lines; pesticides and chemical fertilizers are routinely sprayed on nearby fields; and some local drinking water sources are contaminated.

Company officials won approval to expand the landfill this year from the Kings County Board of Supervisors despite opposition from hundreds of residents who accused officials of ignoring complaints from those without political clout in the largely Spanish-speaking community.

The expansion permit is on hold while environmental investigations continue.