EPA to investigate cluster of birth defects in Kettleman City, Calif.

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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that it plans to investigate a cluster of facial birth defects and other health issues among migrant farm workers in the impoverished California enclave of Kettleman City as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to shift the agency’s attention toward issues of environmental justice.

Residents suspect the facial deformities are linked to a nearby toxic waste dump. The dump is set to be expanded to accommodate waste from large population centers, including Los Angeles, and residents have filed a lawsuit against the Kings County Board of Supervisors challenging its approval of the expansion.

In an interview, Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, said the case meets the standards of the Obama administration’s decision this month to make environmental justice a priority.

“Kettleman City is a very vulnerable community at the confluence of large agriculture and pesticide use, heavy truck traffic, a chemical waste facility accepting PCBs and a proposed 600-megawatt power plant,” Blumenfeld said. “This is also a community trying to be represented in a way to get its voice heard.

“Our job is to make sure that we look under every rock and try to see if there is a causal relationship between all these activities and the health impacts on the ground,” he said. “We need to provide real information, based on science, not just from the company proposing a project.”

When informed of the EPA’s announcement, Kings County assistant administrator Deb West said: “Wow. Wow. Jeepers. I need to find out more about this.”

The EPA’s announcement was welcomed by Chemical Waste Management, which owns the toxic waste facility about 3 miles southwest of Kettleman City, according to company spokeswoman Kit Cole. “We think our site is very protective of human health and the environment,” she said. “But we also recognize that the families of Kettleman City need and deserve answers.”

Blumenfeld cautioned against unrealistic expectations of the federal government’s study of Kettleman City, a town of about 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking residents located just off Interstate 5 about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We may not find a smoking gun when we do our health analysis, or pinpoint the exact causal relationship between the environment and harm,” he said. “But that should not hinder our ability to act.”

Blumenfeld also vowed to use the EPA’s influence to “strongly recommend” that state and local regulatory authorities “step up to the plate” and share some of the expenses for environmental reviews at Kettleman City and at other “environmental hot spots.”

Blumenfeld was expected to address a protest today on the steps of the EPA’s San Francisco headquarters, which will include hundreds of Kettleman City residents.

“We believe the new EPA leadership, with support from Washington, can start fulfilling the EPA’s mandate to protect health and environmental justice,” said Bradley Angel, a spokesman for Greenaction, which is leading the protest. “But we are not taking a wait-and-see attitude toward this situation -- people are getting sick and dying in these communities.”

Chemical Waste Management has made some concessions to residents. In September, the company voluntarily decided not to accept solid or hazardous wastes from the Santa Susana Field Laboratory in Ventura County because of concerns about possible radioactive content in the materials.

The company continues to accept carcinogenic PCBs from old transformers under a special permit that has been under EPA review since it expired about 12 years ago. The company blamed the EPA for delays in the approval process.

“The EPA issued some kind of permit extension that allows us to legally continue to take those materials,” said Cole, the company spokeswoman. “We continue to operate in a legal manner while the new permit has been in progress.”

Kings County medical authorities were doubtful that the EPA would pinpoint the cause or causes of at least five cleft palate or cleft lip cases among 20 live births in a 14-month period beginning September 2007. That amounts to about 250 cases per 1,000 live births, far above the national average of about 1 per 1,000, calculated by the National Institutes of Health.

“Each of these cases is different, and it has been my contention from the beginning that there is no science that will answer the question of why those five events happened within that time period,” Kings County health officer Michael MacLean said. “No matter what resources you put into it, the problem is that the number of cases is so small.”

County officials said the California Department of Public Health recently turned down their request to investigate the cases.

A spokesman for the California Department of Public Health on Tuesday night disputed that characterization. He said the agency is actively looking into the concerns of the community and will be making its findings known in the coming weeks.

Blumenfeld said the EPA’s intervention in Kettleman City underlines the agency’s commitment to, as he put it, “revolutionize the way we do business” by channeling resources into “often forgotten” areas, including urban communities, the U.S.-Mexico border and tribal nations.