Landfill fines don't comfort Kettleman residents

FRESNO -- Environmental justice advocates from the farmworker community of Kettleman City reacted with bittersweet emotions to news that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week fined Chemical Waste Management about $1 million for failing to properly manage waste at its controversial Kettleman Hills Facility.

"On the surface, it's good that they are actually taking enforcement action," said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a resident of the 1,500 resident community of Kettleman City, which was rocked by an inexplicable rash of birth defects between 2007 and 2010.

"But at the same time, it kind of makes us wonder -- we have been told all these years that (the waste facility) is safe, there is nothing wrong with it, it doesn't affect human health -- but it is not safe, otherwise they wouldn't be taking enforcement action against them."

"I think it's a double-edged sword. We are happy about the enforcement action, but it just raises those fears again."

The settlement is a result of a joint investigation conducted by the U.S. EPA and California Department of Toxic Substances Control in February 2010. It found that the facility's laboratory had not been following proper quality control procedures since 2005, according to an EPA news release.

"Significant shortcomings at Chemical Waste Management's lab compromised the company's ability to accurately analyze the toxic waste to be disposed of in their landfill," regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld said in a statement.

The investigation also found records indicating the facility disposed of waste that did not fully meet standards for treatment prior to disposal, and disposed of hazardous waste leachate from the landfill without assuring it met treatment standards, according to the release.

There is no evidence suggesting the landfill's violations posed danger to nearby communities or workers at the facility, according to the EPA. But that assurance provides little comfort to Mares-Alatorre.

Between 2007 and 2010, 11 infants were born with birth defects in the Kettleman City area, and three died. A 2010 state investigation found no common cause for the birth defects.

On the same day the EPA released news of the fine, another Kettleman City mom went into labor with a baby who was expected to be born with part of its brain missing, Mares-Alatorre said.

"Contrary to the popular belief that (the birth defects) stopped happening, it hasn't really stopped," she said.

The settlement requires the Kettleman Hills Facility to pay a $400,000 fine and spend an estimated $600,000 to comply with environmental laws, according to the EPA. Also, the facility must use an outside laboratory for at least two years to verify that its hazardous wastes meet treatment standards prior to disposal, among other conditions.

That's on top of a $300,000 fine the EPA levied against the company in November 2010 for failure to properly manage cancer-causing PCBs within the facility.

These recent fines come while Waste Management has a proposal pending to expand the hazardous waste landfill at the Kettleman Hills Facility. For Mares-Alatorre, the latest enforcement action proves that Waste Management's expansion proposal should be denied.

"When they are trying to secure permits for expansion, (the fines) also lets us know once again that they can't be responsible for more trash, since they can't handle what they have right now, obviously," she said.

But Jennifer Andrews, a spokeswoman for Waste Management, said the agreement and penalty are not indicative of the overall management of the facility.

"Although we disagree with EPA's findings, the consent agreement will allow us to move forward with a common understanding of acceptable hazardous waste management practices and will allow us to close out several complex regulatory issues," Andrews said in a statement.

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