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Grieving Kettleman City mothers tackle a toxic waste dump

Each had miscarried or given birth to a child with birth defects. Their pain gave them strength to fight for justice.

April 01, 2010|By Louis Sahagun

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.

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