Maria Saucedo, whose child had birth defects and later died, was interviewed… (Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles…)
Reporting from Kettleman City, Calif. — California's two U.S. senators on Tuesday called for a moratorium on plans to expand the state's largest toxic waste landfill pending the completion of investigations into birth defects in the nearby farm workers' community of Kettleman City.
Both Democrats also pledged to secure an estimated $4 million needed to upgrade the community's drinking water system, which contains elevated levels of arsenic, a naturally occurring element in California soils that also is used in pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and metal alloys.
"I have instructed my staff to go to Kettleman City and investigate this matter in order to ascertain what action might be taken immediately to clean up the polluted drinking water on which the people of Kettleman City currently rely," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said in a statement. "In addition, it is my view that there should be no expansion of the toxic dump site until we know with certainty whether it is a cause of this serious situation."
Feinstein, who heads the Senate subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies, part of the Appropriations Committee, said she planned to present her concerns to Lisa Jackson, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which has oversight over the 1,600-acre landfill.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control would have jurisdiction over the expansion, while the federal EPA regulates disposal of PCBs.
Nahal Magharabi, a spokeswoman for EPA, said the agency "will not issue a permit to Chemical Waste Management unless we are confident that the facility does not present a health risk to the community." State toxic-substances officials did not have an immediate response.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, joined Feinstein in suggesting that the facility not be expanded "until we have more conclusive results on the potential health impacts on the local community."
She said she was also "fighting to secure funding through the Recovery Act to build a water treatment plant to make sure residents have safe drinking water to drink."
The announcements caught the facility's owners by surprise. A day earlier, a spokeswoman for Waste Management Inc. said it had no contingency plans in place to mothball the landfill, 3.2 miles southwest of Kettleman City. Last year, the site took in 400,000 tons of hazardous waste, including cancer-causing PCBs.
"This is the first we have heard Sen. Feinstein's suggestion," said Bob Henry, senior district manager for Waste Management, Kettleman Hills division. "We believe our facility is safe, and we encourage an investigation into other possible causes of the birth defects so that Kettleman City residents can get the answers they deserve."
The move came as state health officials on Tuesday unveiled preliminary findings about birth defects in the community and concluded that they were "not higher than expected" and comparable to rates in nearby communities. The agency said it could find no pattern suggesting a common cause for the cases.
Rick Kreutzer, chief of the state Department of Public Health's division of environmental occupational and disease control, told the Kings County Board of Supervisors that the birth defects over a 22-year period ending in 2008 could have occurred by chance alone, or from a variety of causes.
The state report excluded a fifth baby born with a defect, on grounds the mother, Maria Saucedo, had a legal address in the community of Avenal, about 18 miles away. But state officials said they would reconsider her case because Saucedo spent most of her time at her mother's residence, in Kettleman City.
Joan E. Denton, director of the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, told county officials that "this is a very important issue" and that "all appropriate state departments are committed to investigating possible environmental issues in Kettleman City, and to do so in an expeditious manner."
Residents dismissed the report as a "whitewash" and questioned the sudden influx of health officials after years of unanswered complaints.
"This report is a disgrace," community activist Bradley Angel, executive director of the advocate group Greenaction, told the Board of Supervisors. "It would be a joke, except for one thing -- it's deadly serious," he said. Residents also remained concerned about whether it was safe to have children. They demanded further study into the cumulative impacts of decades-long exposure to pollutants, including smog and particulates, pesticides used in fields, arsenic in the water and the hazardous wastes processed at the landfill.
"And why did it take so long for an investigation?" asked Magdalena Romero, whose daughter, America, was born with defects and died when she was 4 1/2 months old. "All of a sudden, all these officials are in town promising to help. I think that is only because the governor told them to do it, or else."