Kettleman gains voice in process

RANCHO CÓRDOVA -- Maricela Mares-Alatorre stood before the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board last Thursday afternoon and asked the board members to do something she believed would be unprecedented -- and maybe impossible.

Instead of voting on the project before them -- a proposed three-year extension of a bioreactor at Waste Management's Kettleman Hills Facility -- the Kettleman City resident urged the board to postpone its vote until they had heard testimony from more residents.

The town's residents, she said, had not been adequately notified of the meeting, and were unable to skip work to travel 224 miles one-way -- or more than three and a half hours -- to the meeting.

Appealing to the board members' hearts, Mares-Alatorre encouraged them to look beyond whether the bioreactor would meet waste discharge requirements, and focus instead on whether the poor, 88.8 percent Latino community in rural Kings County could shoulder more pollution or health problems.

At least 11 Kettleman City-area babies were born with birth defects between 2007 and 2010. A state investigation found no common cause for the birth defects.

"I've never seen a board deny anything -- they just don't do that," Mares-Alatorre said in her testimony before the board. "But sometimes these things call for heroes. They call for you to make a decision based not just on them having their ducks in a row, but on logic."

"I think if you use common sense, beyond the regulations, you might say, 'wow, this community is really overburdened and they have a lot of issues right now, and maybe it's not the best time to continue with this green project.'"

To her surprise, Mares-Alatorre's request was -- in part -- granted.

The regional water board voted 4-1 to delay its decision on the bioreactor -- a "green" technology in the research and development phase that uses liquid and air to transform and degrade waste -- until they could hold a hearing at a time, and in a location, more accessible to Kettleman City community members.

Board staff had recommended approval of the project, after concluding the continued operation of the bioreactor would pose no threat to water quality.

Board chair Katherine Hart said the majority vote was based on a desire to ensure Kettleman City residents had a voice in the permitting process.

Board staff said they followed protocol by publishing notice of the hearing in local newspapers, displayed it in the local post office, and mailing it to those who have expressed interest in the issue.

But a handful of Kettleman City residents who testified at the hearing, and 186 people who signed letters to the board, expressed dismay that they were not adequately notified of the hearing, and stated their desire to be involved at every stage regarding facilities that could impact their community.

"This board is very interested in environmental justice issues and we want to make sure that everyone is always considered and has a forum in which to air their concerns, so I think that's what the board was attempting to do," Hart said.

One unintended consequence of the board's decision is the continued hearing might be held very close to the day Waste Management's current bioreactor permit is slated to expire.

On Monday morning, board staff member Clay Rodgers said the next hearing has been tentatively scheduled for Sept. 13 in Kettleman City. If the permit is not renewed by Sept. 15, Waste Management will have to stop adding liquids to the bioreactor, according to Rodgers.

"We respect and understand the board's decision to hold the meeting closer to Kettleman City," Waste Management spokesman Cecilio Barrera said in an e-mail Monday.

After the hearing, the few Kettleman City residents who had traveled to the hearing celebrated their small, maybe temporary, victory in the parking lot.

"It's a tremendous day for Kettleman City and a great victory for communities," said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. "For the first time in history, Chem Waste did not get what they wanted, and the water board is changing how they do business, in terms of involving the public."