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Grieving Kettleman City mothers tackle a toxic waste dump

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On a rainy afternoon in a cramped trailer, the five homemakers listened as state officials with clipboards asked personal questions: Did they or their husbands smoke, drink or take illicit drugs? Had they been exposed to pesticides or other toxic substances in the United States or Mexico? Do their families have histories of birth defects?

Each had miscarried a fetus or given birth to a child with severe birth defects within the last three years. Each suspected it had something to do with a nearby toxic waste facility.

"You want to know if we ever smoked cigarettes or took drugs," Maura Alatorre said bitterly. "But I'm telling you that if the dump is allowed to expand, we'll suffer more damage and illness. Why? Because we are poor and Hispanic. The people who issue those permits don't care about us getting sick from it because all they think about is money."

Magdalena Romero added, "Kettleman City to them is just a pigsty, but we are human beings, and we have rights."

Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of the state Department of Public Health, smiled tensely. "This is only the start of a full investigation," he said, weighing his words. "But to be very honest, we may not be able to find answers for each of you."

A year ago, these Mexican immigrants were shy, unquestioning. Not anymore. In less than a year, they have overcome their fears of government officials and placed this farmworker community, one of the poorest in the state, on the national stage.

Romero's daughter, America, who was born with a cleft palate and other serious health problems, died in 2007 when she was 4 1/2 months old. Alatorre's 2-year-old son, Emmanuel, is missing part of his brain and cannot keep his balance. Daria Hernandez's 1-year-old son, Ivan, has had two surgeries related to his cleft palate and other problems. Maria Saucedo's daughter Ashley died when she was 10 months old. A fifth woman, Lizbeth Canales, miscarried a fetus with heart problems and clubbed feet and hands.

"The first time I spoke out in public against the chemical dump, I felt so scared and embarrassed that my heart was pounding and I was shaking so hard I could barely speak," Romero recalled. "Today, I am a braver woman. . . . Once, our little pueblo felt lost and abandoned. In recent weeks, we have won great victories. We have a long way to go, but we will never tire."

Finding answers won't be easy. The Kings County community of 1,500 has for decades been surrounded by agricultural sewage, diesel exhaust, pesticides sprayed on adjacent fields and orchards, elevated levels of arsenic in drinking water and tons of dangerous substances hauled each day into the landfill 3 1/2 miles southwest of town.

Kettleman City is one of many small towns across the United States struggling with serious health problems that residents believe have environmental causes. Few get the answers they seek.

"In many of these communities, the number of cases is so small -- and in such small populations -- that the issues are not resolvable by statistical analysis," said Dr. Dean Baker, president of the International Society for Environmental Epidemiology and director of the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at UC Irvine. "What I find fascinating about Kettleman City, however, is the confluence of events that has led to a massive response from state and federal authorities.

"It takes almost heroic people at the local level to make these things happen," Baker said.

Kettleman City, a municipality in name only, lies just off Interstate 5, equidistant from Los Angeles and San Francisco. It has no stop signs, sidewalks or streetlights. The per capita income is about $7,300 a year. Homes and trailers rent from $600 to $800 a month, and many have broken windows, ripped screen doors and peeling paint.

Water runs brown as coffee from many household taps. Residents buy potable water at local vending machines for $1.75 a gallon. The nearest supermarkets and pharmacies are about 15 miles away in Avenal.

Most residents work for low wages in the Central Valley on farms and in orchards. It is unknown how many people here are illegal immigrants, but the number is thought to be substantial. Only 225 people are registered to vote. Politicians rarely visit.

Local officials, however, frequently tour the landfill, where diesel big rigs from Southern California annually dump 400 tons of hazardous substances, including paint, acid and toys from China contaminated with lead.

Each year, the facility's owner, Waste Management Inc., pays $3 million in taxes and disposal fees into Kings County's general fund.

Waste Management officials said they welcome the state study. The landfill has been an integral part of the Kings County community for 28 years and is monitored, regulated and controlled by nearly a dozen local, state and federal agencies, owners note.

In those 28 years, the company has been fined more than $2 million for infractions, including mishandling of carcinogenic polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs; failing to properly analyze incoming wastes, storm water and leachate for PCBs; and failing to properly calibrate equipment.

A year ago, the company applied for a county permit to expand. Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a San Francisco environmental group long opposed to the landfill, conducted an informal health survey, turning up at least five cases of birth defects among 20 babies born between September 2007 and November 2008. Three of them had died.

"My daughter, America, was the first of the babies born with a cleft and other problems," Romero recalled in a tense, even voice.

"Until the day she was born, the doctor told me she was fine. She was 4 1/2 months old when she died. At first, I thought it was an act of God. Then I started hearing about the others."

It wasn't easy for them to go public. "I met with the moms individually," recalled Greenaction community organizer Ana Martinez. "They were anxious. Some cried. I said, 'This is a big fight against a terrible problem. We must get government agencies to understand. You can actually do something about that. We'd like to get all of you together.' "

The women eventually agreed. On Aug. 12, 2009, under the watchful eyes of Kings County Sheriff's Department deputies and police dogs, they waited their turn to address federal, state and local regulatory authorities at a hearing in the Kettleman City Community Center.

When Saucedo's name was called, however, she broke down in tears. Romero went to the podium instead, so nervous she could hardly breathe.

"I, on behalf of all the parents here, ask that you help us, that you listen to us and that you don't continue permitting more expansions here," Romero said in a quavering voice. "Many children are being born with illnesses, many miscarriages are happening."

Bolstered by the experience, the women showed up at more than a dozen county hearings, where they held up enlarged color photographs of the babies' oral deformities. The photos became their calling cards at demonstrations and contentious Kings County hearings.

"Some people said we were crazy," Saucedo said, shaking her head in anger. "They said our babies' birth defects never happened, that we got our photographs off the Internet or that they were pictures of the same baby taken from different angles."

Frustrations mounted over the county and state agencies' failure to act on the birth defects. All that changed when reporters began asking probing questions in late 2009. Yielding to pressure from the community, Kings County officials in December requested a door-to-door state investigation into health problems. State health officials rejected the request because, they said at the time, the situation did not warrant one.

On Dec. 22, the Kings County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the permit to expand the landfill.

Greenaction and a local group, the People for Clean Air and Water, sued county supervisors, saying they had not adequately addressed the project's effect on the community's health. Dozens of residents traveled by bus 200 miles to demonstrate on the steps of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters in San Francisco.

"Before we left for San Francisco, my oldest daughter asked, 'Mom, why do we have to go to this thing?' " Romero recalled. "I said, 'It's for America, your sister in heaven. Get in the bus.' "

U.S. EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld ordered his office to review its oversight activity involving the landfill and promised to go to Kettleman.

On Feb. 3, Romero awaited him on a lumpy gray couch facing the front door and a living room window with a 2-foot crack patched with silver duct tape. She was flanked by her children and clutched a large white photo album to her chest.

"The first thing I'm going to do is tell him that it is a great victory and honor to have him here in my home," she said. "I'm going offer him a glass of water -- bottled water. Then I'm going to show him these photographs of my daughter. I'm going to tell him that I'm not sure what happened to her, but I think it's the dump."

Soon after Blumenfeld left, a curious crowd pressed around the five women in the middle of the town's main drag, General Petroleum Street. Saucedo spoke first. "He promised to do all he can do to help," she told the gathered throng, including media from distant cities. "Personally, I won't be happy until that dump is moved to the other side of the world." Saucedo showed no trace of the fear that had driven her to tears some six months earlier.

Results of the state study will be released later this year. In the meantime, Romero, Alatorre, Hernandez, Saucedo and Canales grieve. They pray for guidance and strength at home altars adorned with candles, porcelain angels, renderings of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and photographs of their babies.

Romero keeps a lock of America's hair in a small white envelope. Saucedo leaves red roses on Ashley's grave. Saucedo's husband has a tattoo of Ashley's disfigured face on his left arm.

"All we want is for someone to tell us what is going on with our babies," Maria Saucedo said.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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