KETTLEMAN CITY -- Four Kings County Sheriff patrol cars were parked last Wednesday afternoon outside the local elementary school on General Petroleum Avenue, the main thoroughfare in this tiny community of about a dozen streets.
Inside the school cafeteria, five law enforcement officials lined the perimeter of the room and watched as verbal fireworks erupted during a Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board hearing regarding Waste Management's proposal to extend the permit for the Kettleman Hills Facility bioreactor, a "green" technology in the research and development phase that uses liquid and air to transform and degrade waste.
The item was continued from an August hearing near Sacramento, where the board, citing environmental justice concerns, voted to delay a decision on the bioreactor until it could hold a hearing at a time and in a location more accessible to Kettleman City residents.
But as the meeting began, community activists criticized the board for violating the intent of its August decision. They said that by holding the hearing at 4 p.m. -- and allowing a heavy police presence inside and outside the meeting -- the board virtually ensured that farmworkers and other members of the immigrant community would not attend.
"You are in our town now, and you have these hired guns out there?" said resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, as board chairwoman Kate Hart was calling the meeting to order. "What are you afraid of?"
Hart asked Mares-Alatorre and others to sit down, so the meeting could proceed. Those who testified at the August hearing, she said, would not have the opportunity to speak again.
"You need to let your people speak, and the other people in the audience," Hart said.
"My people are not here," Mares-Alatorre responded. She noted that just a few residents sat in the cafeteria, among rows of Waste Management employees and supporters.
As the exchange escalated, the public microphone was momentarily turned off, and the board's lawyer threatened to hold the speakers in contempt for disrupting the meeting.
"I have been coming to public hearings for 23 years in this town, and this is the most police ever in a hearing in Kettleman City," said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice. "What are you all thinking? In an immigrant community? You need to reschedule this hearing without all these police."
The water board did request law enforcement be present at the meeting, "but we certainly didn't intend that there would be that kind of presence," Clay Rodgers, water board assistant executive officer, said Monday. "We have no control over their response to that."
The board later took public testimony, and heard from supporters of the bioreactor. Nobody from Kettleman City spoke against it. The board voted 4-1 in approval of extending the permit for the bioreactor for another three years.
For 17-year-old Miguel Alatorre, who has grown up attending such hearings with his mother, Mares-Alatorre, the meeting underscored that as more things change in Kettleman City, the more things stay the same.
Miguel's grandparents began fighting more than two decades ago for environmental justice for the impoverished farmworker community, which is located 3½ miles from the Kettleman Hills Facility, the largest hazardous waste landfill in the state.
"Back then, like my grandpa still believes, the louder you are, the more they listen to you," Miguel said.
But within the past two years, community activists have since found other ways to make their voices heard, and have made significant strides in their struggle.
Local activists captured the attention of the media -- including the Los Ángeles Times and CNN -- and political leaders -- including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in 2010 ordered the the state health department and state EPA to investigate an inexplicable rash of birth defects in the community of about 1,500 people.
That state investigation did not uncover a common cause for the birth defects, but it did shine a light on the community's need for clean drinking water. Now, local and state government are in the process of securing a source for clean drinking water, and funding.
And while the study did not find a connection between the landfill and the community's health problems, the facility has come under intense scrutiny. Last month, the Environmental Protection Agency fined Waste Management about $1 million for failing to properly manage waste at the facility.
But the police presence at last Wednesday's hearing -- as well as the heated exchange that unfolded between activists and board members, and the board's approval of the permit -- emphasized to Miguel that local activists today seem to be bumping against the same system his grandparents fought more than two decades ago: A system, he said, that favors the needs and desires of large companies over those of local, impacted residents.
"Pretty much, they're saying, 'Let's hold a meeting at a time when no one can show up, so when we vote 'yes' on it, we can blame it on the residents for not showing up and not voicing their opinions," Miguel said.
"Instead of just looking at the people's opinion, and people's rights, and pretty much humanity in general, they are looking at the company's side of the story more, and how they can serve them, while at the same time, making it look like they are trying to support us in a way," he said.
It's been a long struggle -- and its seriousness is one that even his friends at school don't fully comprehend, he said.
"They see it on the news, but they don't understand how serious it is," he said.
"They haven't lived through it like we have. To them, it's like this person is fighting for something that he might never be able to win, or something he can never change. But to us, it's something that we have to fight against."
Dolores García, a member of the local youth group Kids Protecting Our Planet, was working a shift at the popular In-N-Out Burger just off Interstate 5 near Kettleman City last week, and did not make it to the meeting.
She learned the outcome of the hearing while clearing trays at the restaurant. She, too, acknowledged that despite all the attention Kettleman City has received, little has actually changed.
"They keep on passing all the permits," she said. "It is still the same. There is more attention, and we have had the news, but they keep on passing the permits and stuff. It is not stopping them."
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