Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed state public health and environmental officials Friday to visit Kettleman City to conduct "a thorough investigation" into the causes of birth defects in the San Joaquin Valley farming community.
Schwarzenegger's intercession comes more than a year after activists petitioned state agencies to investigate whether a large toxic dump near the community might be causing cleft palates and other defects among the mostly low-income Latino residents.
The dump, operated by Houston-based Waste Management, is the largest hazardous waste facility west of the Mississippi.
Earlier this week, Jared Blumenfeld, the regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, launched a federal inquiry, calling the situation "a human tragedy at a scale . . . none of us would want to have to endure."
"We will take our time and spend time on the ground," he said, alluding to activists' complaints that state officials had refused to visit the beleaguered enclave. "When I hear about people doing reports without going to the community, it makes my blood boil," he said.
Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice , a San Francisco-based group that has organized the community, called Schwarzenegger's action "long overdue" and urged him to order the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to suspend a permit application from Waste Management to expand the facility.
Schwarzenegger emphasized that the investigation would "include interviews with families," as well as "a scientific review of soil samples and a full examination of medical records." Officials would also review the overall birth defect rates over a 22-year period in the region.
Community members say that five babies out of 20 live births in a recent 14-month period had facial deformities. A review by the Kings County Public Health Department found that six of 63 babies born over the same period to mothers living in the town had various birth defects.
The community of 1,500 sits in a region heavily polluted by pesticides and fumes from diesel-powered trucks.
Waste Management said in a statement it is "pleased" that the state will investigate the birth defects in a "coordinated interagency approach." It added, "We believe our Kettleman Hills facility is highly protective of human health and the environment."