Kettleman City residents sue Kings County

HANFORD -- Magdalena Romero's daughter, América, was born with birth defects and died when she was 4 months old.

Romero, a Kettleman City resident, is now demanding that Kings County and state officials conduct an investigation into the cluster of birth defects in her small, agricultural community, which is 3½ miles from Chemical Waste Management's Kettleman Hills Facility, the state's largest hazardous-waste landfill.

"I don't blame (Waste Management) exactly," Romero said in Spanish. "But I do ask officials to do an investigation and show us the results."

Romero was among about a dozen Kettleman City residents who gathered Wednesday at the Kings County Government Center in Hanford to announce that their community group, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water, and San Francisco-based Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice would sue the county Board of Supervisors for approving expansion of the hazardous-waste landfill at the Kettleman Hills facility without adequately assessing the project's potentially negative impacts on the community of about 1,500 people, where about 93 percent of residents are Latino.

The lawsuit's goal is to invalidate the landfill-expansion permit and force the county to fix flaws in the environmental review and permitting process, Greenaction executive director Bradley Angel said.

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 to consistuent concerns and mounting attention to the birth-defects cluster, 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 Wednesday.

The Board of Supervisors on Dec. 22 unanimously approved the landfill expansion. No investigation was conducted.

Since then, the state Department of Public Health has said it would not conduct an investigation.

Keith Winkler, director of the Kings County Department of Public Health, said he spoke via telephone with a state health representative, who informed him that a state analysis determined that an investigation would not be fruitful.

The state's conclusion is likely because determining the cause of a small birth-defects cluster is challenging, Winkler said in a phone interview Friday.

"In a small population, statistically it's very hard to say that you have an unusual number -- either high or low -- of something, because there's just not that many people," Winkler said.

The reasoning did not sit well with María Sacucedo, whose daughter, Ashley Álvarez, was born with birth defects and died about 11 months later.

"How many more babies have to die for them to do an investigation?" Saucedo, a former longtime Kettleman City resident who now lives in Avenal, said in Spanish.

The lawsuit also alleges that the county engaged in discrimination throughout the permitting process by failing to translate some documents into Spanish and by holding meetings at times and locations that made them inaccessible to Kettleman City residents.

It also was discriminatory in approving expansion of a hazardous-waste facility that will affect a majority-Latino community, the suit alleges.

"The county's approval of the hazardous-waste facility expansion is part of a pattern and practice of discriminatory land use and resource allocation dating back at least 40 years," the lawsuit says.

Romero said she thinks the county has discriminated against her and her neighbors.

As she held her 9-month-old daughter, also named América, Romero said state and local officials should hear the pleas of Kettleman City families, even if most residents are low-income Latinos, a majority of whom speak only Spanish.

"We have rights also," she said. "We all have the same rights. They can't ignore us. They have to pay attention to us."

The county Planning Commission and Board of Supervisors conducted extensive reviews of the project, and required Waste Management to complete all the necessary process components, Assistant County Administrative Officer Deb West said in a phone interview Monday.

The Board of Supervisors, she said, "found there were no impacts that would necessitate not approving the project."

The county complied with state environmental regulations, Bob Henry, senior district manager for the Kettleman Hills facility, said in a statement.

"At Waste Management, we stand by Kings County's rigorous environmental review, which was conducted for the expansion project in full compliance with the California Environmental Quality Act, as well as the extensive and exhaustive community outreach that was conducted in compliance with the Tanner Act," Henry said, referring to legislation requiring counties to prepare hazardous-waste management plans and prescribes specific public participation activities.

"(The company) also believes the project as approved by Kings County is fully protective of public health, safety and the environment."

But Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a Kettleman City resident and spokeswoman for El Pueblo, said the permitting process and expansion approval were unfair and could have detrimental effects on the health of the community.

"We feel that it was unjust to our town, it was unjust to our people, and it was unjust to the children who were born ill and have died," Mares-Alatorre said Wednesday. "We felt like they put money before the safety and health of our community and our children."

Kettleman City residents were expected to participate today in a rally for environmental justice in front of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency office in San Francisco.