California regulators on Wednesday approved expansion of a controversial hazardous waste facility that residents of an impoverished Central California farming community believe is the cause of birth defects and deaths among children.
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control granted a 10-year permit to operate and expand the landfill near Kettleman City by about 5 million cubic yards. The landfill, owned by Chemical Waste Management Inc., is the only one in California licensed to accept carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
The approval followed the most comprehensive review of a permit in the department's history, said Debbie Raphael, the agency's director. As for the community's health fears, Raphael said her message to residents is: "You are safe."
Activists petitioned state and federal health agencies six years ago to investigate whether the landfill could be linked to health problems in Kettleman City, a community of 1,500 people who distrust the facility 3.2 miles away.
A survey by state health investigators was unable to determine the reason 11 babies were born with physical deformities between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of the babies died.
Maria Saucedo, whose daughter, Ashley, was born with a cleft palate and other ailments, and died at 11 months, said she felt saddened that the department had even considered allowing the dump to expand.
"For them to go ahead and approve this permit means our lives and our children's lives are not important," she said.
Raphael said the agency considered community concerns, along with a history of violations at the 1,600-acre landfill just off Interstate 5 between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
"As a mother and resident of California, and as a person who works as a regulator, I, too, was touched by what I saw and heard speaking with mothers who lost babies," Raphael said. "I hope even those who are disappointed understand the reasoning behind the decision and that their concerns were front and center."
Raphael said the 32-year-old landfill is among the most heavily regulated and monitored facilities of its kind.
It is overseen by nearly a dozen state and federal agencies including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District and the State Water Resources Control Board, each of which has concluded the facility does not pose a risk to the community.
The prevailing winds blow south, away from Kettleman City, Raphael said. Groundwater also flows in the opposite direction, leaving the city's drinking water unharmed.
She noted that California needs to "dispose of 1.7 million tons of hazardous waste generated within the state each year. Right now, 70% of that waste is exported out of state."
Expansion is expected to begin after an appeals process on the new permit ends in June. About 10% of the landfill's revenues go into Kings County coffers as a tax.
Jennifer Andrews, a Chemical Waste Management spokeswoman, said approval of the permit "is an example of how business, government and the community can work together to achieve good results."
Many locals, however, say the site's history of violations has demonstrated that it can't be trusted to protect the public's health.
In 1985, the EPA fined the company $2.1 million for violations that included operating additional landfills and waste ponds without authorization.
In 2005, the company was fined $10,000 for violating federal PCB monitoring requirements. It was cited again in 2007 for failing to properly analyze incoming waste, storm water runoff and leachate for PCBs.
In 2010, the EPA levied a $302,100 fine against the facility for failing to properly manage PCBs. A year later, the facility agreed to pay $400,000 in fines and spend $600,000 on laboratory upgrades needed to properly manage hazardous materials.
Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre described the permit approval as "another environmental burden" on the community.
"This fight isn't over," she said.