Historic agreement a victory for environmental justice groups, Kettleman City residents

Environmental justice advocates called the historic agreement with two state agencies a huge victory not only for the community of Kettleman City and its residents, but a victory for other disadvantage and vulnerable communities of color suffering environmental injustice in other parts of the country.

On Aug. 10, Greenaction and El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpia/People for Clean Air & Water of Kettleman City announced a historic agreement with the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Environmental Protection Agency to resolve Greenaction and El Pueblo’s civil rights complaint over DTSC’s 2014 decision to approve a permit to expand the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill in rural Kings County.

“This historic settlement will help protect the health, environment and civil rights of low-income, people of color and non-English speaking residents living in Kettleman City and dozens of other at-risk and polluted communities across the state,” said Bradley Angel, executive director for Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

On May 21, 2014 the California Department of Toxic Substance Control approved the expansion of the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City, a farmworker community with 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking low-income residents located off Interstate 5 about halfway between Los Ángeles and San Francisco.

Greenaction and El Pueblo advocates filed an appeal of the expansion on June 23, 2014 which was denied by DTSC in Oct. 13, 2014.

The approval allowed the toxic waste facility, which is about 3.5 miles from Kettleman City and it is the largest in the West, to increase capacity by 5 million cubic yards and stay in operation for another eight years, according to officials back in 2014.

Back then, the facility was operating near capacity which totaled 10.7 million cubic yards of hazardous waste. With the approved expansion, up to 400 trucks could travel to and from the facility each day.

On March 19, 2015, El Pueblo and Greenaction filed a civil rights complaint under state and federal laws with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights against CalEPA and DTSC.

Both advocates groups objected to DTSC’s May 21, 2014 permit decision on numerous grounds, including that it violated their civil rights. Their complaint was accepted by the Office of Civil Right for investigation by letter on April 17, 2015.

The letter stated that OCR would contact the parties involve in the complaint about entering into alternative dispute resolution to resolve the complaint.

All the parties agreed to mediation and developed the agreement through facilitated mediation sessions which started on Jan. 19, 2016 and ended on July 29.

“El Pueblo/People for Clean Air & Water of Kettleman City is proud of the work that went into this agreement,” said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, with El Pueblo/People for Clean Air & Water of Kettleman City. “Although the settlement doesn’t fix all of the problems, it is good to know that moving forward, everyone can expect to participate in DTSC public processes in a more meaningful and equitable level.”

After months on mediation both side of the table agree that the settlement agreement is one of the first examples of a voluntary resolution by state agencies and community groups under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act.

Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in any programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance.

According to Angel and Mares-Alatorre the agreement contains provisions designed to improve public health and environmental quality for people in Kettleman City.

Provisions of the settlement agreement includes:

1. DTSC has agreed to help facilitate Greenaction and El Pueblo’s efforts to conduct a community-based public health assessment;

2. Improve third-party and community-based environmental monitoring, and

3. Establish an asthma intervention program for residents of Kettleman City.

The agreement aims to enhance the transparency and rigor of DTSC’s compliance with civil rights laws.

“This agreement helps the people of Kettleman City and aligns with our efforts to prioritize environmental justice in the decision-making processes of all the boards and departments within CalEPA,” Matthew Rodriquez, California’s Secretary for Environmental Protection. “It provides a framework for supporting improvements in public health and the environment in the state’s most impacted communities, including Kettleman City.”

Both Angel and Mares-Alatorre said that thanks to the settlement, now DTSC will have to consider factors related to environmental justice when reviewing Chemical Waste Management Inc.’s pending application to renew its operating permit for the Kettleman Hills landfill and any expansion application if submitted within 3 years.

The DTSC now has to comply with applicable state and federal civil rights requirements during its permitting process for hazardous waste disposal facilities and during regulatory oversight of facilities under its jurisdiction as well as has to adopt policies to create a framework for more fully incorporating civil rights considerations, meaningful public participation and language access in its decision-making process.

“This is an important step towards better partnership with environmental justice communities across the state,” Barbara Lee, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

“This agreement is an important step forward in making environmental justice a reality.” Angel said.

María G. Ortiz-Briones: 559-441-6782, @TuValleTuSalud