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EPA probes its actions in town with toxic-waste dump

The federal agency's internal investigation will run concurrently with a state and local inquiry into health and environmental issues facing Kettleman City, Calif.

January 29, 2010|By Louis Sahagun
  • Maria Saulcedo sits next to a memorial to her daughter Ashley, who died at the age of 11 months. Five babies, including Ashley, were born with cleft palates in Kettleman City over a 14-month-period and some residents blame a nearby toxic waste dump.
Maria Saulcedo sits next to a memorial to her daughter Ashley, who died at… (Luis Sinco/Los Angeles…)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched an internal investigation into its permitting and oversight in a San Joaquin Valley farming community dominated by a hazardous-waste facility, agricultural pesticide spraying and truck exhaust that may be contributing to health problems including severe birth defects.

EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld said the internal investigation would run concurrently with a broader inquiry in which state and local agencies will examine health and environmental issues facing Kettleman City, a town of 1,500 mostly poor, Spanish-speaking farmworkers.

Many residents suspect that problems including a cluster of babies born with facial defects may be connected to a toxic-waste dump operated by Chemical Waste Management.

Blumenfeld said he planned to travel to Kettleman City next week in a rare personal visit by an EPA regional administrator. The trip is expected to include a tour of the dump and conversations with parents of babies born with cleft palates and cleft lips. Community activists say five babies out of 20 live births over a recent 14-month period had those facial deformities. But Keith Winkler, director of the Kings County Health Department, said a review by his office found six of 63 babies born to mothers living in the town in the same period had birth defects of various kinds.

"My first goal is to listen to the community and find out what its needs are," Blumenfeld said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health said Thursday that it had not adequately explained its efforts to resolve concerns of residents, county officials and environmentalists. Earlier this week, a county health official insisted the department told him the state had no intention of conducting a full inquiry, an assertion left uncontested at the time by state officials. "I don't think we have done a good job of clarifying what it is we are doing," said department spokesman Al Lundeen. "Our work is a review of the data, not an epidemiological review."

The state inquiry includes an analysis of statistical information from the California birth defects monitoring program and a regional review of "all medical records of children born with a suspected birth defect," he said. "The county requested that we do that in August. We are wrapping up that work, reviewing our findings and preparing to share them with the community."

"At this point our investigation has not included door-to-door interviews," he said. "If it is appropriate, we will" conduct such interviews.

Critics said department investigators appeared unwilling to walk the streets of the town, take blood samples and speak with residents.

"Sitting hundreds of miles away at your desk and computers is not an investigation and would never be called that if this happened to a rich, white community," community activist Bradley Angel wrote the state agency Wednesday.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com

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