Reporting from Kettleman City, Calif. — 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.