FRESNO — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Thursday a new study by the largest toxic waste dump in the West showed its level of cancer-causing chemicals was too low to harm the health of a nearby community where an unusually high number of babies have been born with serious birth defects.
For years, families who live downwind from the sprawling Kettleman Hills landfill in Central California have been concerned that PCB contamination was linked to a rash of cleft palates and other birth abnormalities.
Chemical Waste Management Inc. announced the results of its long-awaited study showing instead that the level of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, surrounding the dump was similar to contamination found in rural areas across the country, even in the remote wilderness.
Top EPA officials helped design and oversee the study, which cost the company $800,000 to gather and test extensive air, soil and vegetation samples for a year.
It followed another recent report by California health officials that found no common cause for the birth defects and left residents to speculate about what other potential hazards — a constant flow of diesel trucks, pesticide residue in the surrounding fields and multiple high-tension power lines — might pose the biggest risk to their children.
Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's Regional Administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said the data collected by the landfill showed there was no evidence to suggest chemicals migrated outside the dump at concentrations that would adversely affect human health.
He said the agency planned to hold a meeting to discuss the findings in Kettleman City, a mostly Spanish-speaking, agricultural community of 1,500 people located on Interstate 5 midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.
"This is like a detective story. We're trying to locate the culprit that has either directly or in connection with other things contributed to the birth defects and everyone would like to find a smoking gun," Blumenfeld told The Associated Press. "By ruling out PCBs, we can really narrow our attention on other issues that may be of concern, like pesticide drift and arsenic in drinking water."
Local families denounced the study, saying it would provide no comfort to mothers whose infants suffer from heart murmurs and Down syndrome, or those who had died.
"We have children being born with birth defects at an alarmingly high rate, that's what this is about," said resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, whose niece's son was born with severe birth defects. "If PCBs are already here in levels that are supposedly safe for the community, with the expansion, are those levels going to be safe for us?"
No one has yet explained why, between 2007 and March 2010, 11 children were born with major, structural birth defects to mothers who lived in Kettleman City during their pregnancies. Three of those children have since died.
State health officials said in November the rate of birth defects from 2008 to 2009 was higher than would be expected for an area of that size.
The landfill is seeking permission to expand and continue disposing of PCBs, but its permit is on hold while environmental investigations continue.
The EPA is monitoring the dump to ensure regulatory, enforcement and permitting procedures are properly followed.
Officials said the study released Thursday was only one piece of a larger collection of information the EPA was considering before making a decision about the permit and expansion applications.
In November, the agency fined the landfill more than $300,000 for allowing PCBs — now-banned transformer fluids — to leach into the soil in an area adjacent to a storage and flushing building at the dump.
And last June, federal regulators warned the company to use an outside laboratory to analyze the chemical content of its waste, saying the dump had used unreliable test results from its own laboratory.
Blumenfeld said the EPA oversaw environmental consultants who were hired by dump operators to take samples for the latest study, and all chemical analysis was done by an independent lab in Sacramento. The agency lacks the funding or staff to do the study itself, he added.
While the landfill's research methodology overall appears sound, officials will need to go beyond sampling one set of chemicals found at the facility to address the community's concerns, said Dan Wartenberg, an epidemiologist at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in New Jersey who was hired by the EPA as an independent scientific investigator for Kettleman City.
"PCBs are not the only things that people worried about coming from Chemical Waste, they're talking about the impact of metals, volatile organic compounds, and other things," Wartenberg said. "So this report is really a discussion about PCBs, not about whether Chemical Waste is a good neighbor."