Lizbeth Canales speaks with the news media Wednesday in Kettleman City,… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
The regional director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ventured into the dusty farming town of Kettleman City, Calif., on Wednesday for a three-hour tour that included a trip to a nearby toxic waste dump and emotional private meetings with mothers whose babies had birth defects.
The rare diplomatic foray by Jared Blumenfeld came less than a week after he ordered an internal investigation of his agency's oversight of the waste dump and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the state Department of Public Health to conduct a comprehensive study of the community's environmental and health issues. Kettleman City residents and activists who have conducted health surveys say at least five of the 20 babies born in the community between September 2007 and November 2009 suffered serious birth defects, among them cleft palates and lips. Kings County authorities say 64 babies were born during that period, and six had birth defects of various kinds.
Many residents of Kettleman City, located just off Interstate 5 about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco, suspect the landfill is causing the defects and adding toxins to the community's air, water and soil.
Blumenfeld stopped first at the modest peach-colored stucco home of Maura Alatorre, whose 20-month-old son, Emmanuel, was born with a cleft palate and missing part of his brain. With her was Lizbeth Canales, who told the administrator that her female fetus died in August and had heart problems and clubbed feet and hands.
"I am happy about this meeting today," Canales said before the talks with Blumenfeld. "All we want is an investigation. If they had investigated earlier, maybe this wouldn't have happened to all these mothers."
Blumenfeld declined to comment about his conversations with the women except to say, "It was a really good meeting. They were able to show their feelings."
Maria Salcedo, whose daughter Ashley was born with cleft palate and related problems and died in January 2009, said she was delighted that Blumenfeld had offered to "help us all he can." She also said Blumenfeld had suggested the possibility of having "an independent doctor" meet with residents with health problems.
Later, Blumenfeld and half a dozen associates visited Magdalena Romero, whose daughter, America, died 4 1/2 months after she was born with a cleft palate and other health problems.
Earlier in the day, Romero said, "I'm nervous about meeting this important man. But the first thing I'm going to do when he gets here is show him pictures of America," and a living room shrine composed of porcelain angels, candles, fresh roses and all of her daughter's toys.
Political tensions have been on the rise in the impoverished community of 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking farmworkers since the Kings County Board of Supervisors in December dismissed calls for a full investigation into the reported birth defects before approving a proposal to expand the Chemical Waste Management landfill.
Company officials said the landfill, the largest hazardous waste facility in the western United States and the only one in the state permitted to accept cancer-causing PCBs, is expected to run out of room in 2011. Nonetheless, community activists are calling on local, state and federal officials to declare a moratorium on the project pending the completion of the ongoing investigations.
A week ago, Kings County authorities warned Kettleman City residents that their water supply has levels of arsenic above federal drinking water standards of 10 micrograms per liter. County officials say the arsenic is naturally occurring.
"This is not an emergency," health officials said in a letter released Jan. 29. "However, some people who drink water containing arsenic in excess of the maximum contaminant level over the years may experience skin damage or circulatory system problems, and may have an increased risk of getting cancer."
On Tuesday, the state Department of Public Health is expected to release the results of its own comprehensive review of birth defects in the area.