Toxic Town

The central California community of Kettleman City sits next to one of the largest toxic landfills in the country. Some residents think landfill toxins are to blame for air, water, and health problems, including a cluster of birth defects.

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by John Sepulvado

SERIES UPDATE #3- U.S. EPA Investigating Waste Management's Environmental Labs (read the 1/14/11 story)

SERIES UPDATE #2- Waste Management: Study Shows Toxic Landfill Poses No Threat to Human Health (read the 1/13/11 story)
SERIES UPDATE-  Waste Management announces resumption of PCB air monitoring (read the 1/7/11 story)
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PART ONE:  A NEIGHBOR'S SUSPICION (originally aired January 5, 2011)
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Between 2007 and 2010, almost a dozen babies from the area were born with defects. A preliminary investigation by the state can't find a cause for the birth defect cluster.  But some parents of those children suspect air emissions from a nearby toxic landfill are responsible.

For the first eight months, Maura Alatorre's visits to the doctor were routine. But then, with a month left in her pregnancy, doctors told Alatorre her baby would have defects and have to be delivered through C-Section.


"When the baby was born, I wanted to hold the baby, but the doctors didn't know if he would be born dead or alive," Alatorre says in Spanish. "I had faith that everything would go well…I thought it was my fault, but I didn't do anything to make him this way."

Emmanuel Alatorre is now two and a half years old. He was born with a part of his brain missing and cleft lip. Emmanuel's face is scared from his forehead to his chin from reconstructive surgery. He's one of 11 Kettleman City babies born with defects in a town with just 1500 people since 2007. Three of those babies died including one baby delivered stillborn. Alatorre blames the local toxic landfill.

"I think something was affected because God didn't just send me my son that way just because he wanted too. He sent him to me to be investigated because people are lying about this land and we need to find how and why we're being lied too," Alatorre says.

Alatorre suspects PCBs from the landfill are at least partially responsible for the defects.

PCBs are compounds that studies have linked to birth defects similar to those found in Kettleman City. And four miles away from the Alatorre's house, thousands of trucks were dumping PCBs at a toxic landfill owned by Chemical Waste Inc, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc.

The PCBs came in dirt, sludge and dust from the highly contaminated Hunters Point area of San Francisco.

[NOTE: After repeatedly declining recorded comment, officials at Waste Management say they will comment later today.]

Mares-Alatorre1There are indications the volume of PCBs processed at the facility was much larger than previous years. For example, Waste Management pays the Kettleman City Foundation based on the volume of disposals. It's part of a court-ordered settlement.  After the Hunters Point cleanup, foundation board member Maricela Mares-Alatorre (Maura Alatorre's cousin) says Waste Management presented the non-profit with a huge check.

"The general manager came, and he presented a check for $80,000. And it was kind of stunned silence around the board," Mares-Alatorre recalls. "And he says, don't everybody thank me. And I'm thinking, 'Thank you for what? The extra toxics in our town?'  We didn't really know what to say."

Mares-Alatorre says the company pays the foundation 25 cents for every ton of trash processed at the facility, and a dollar for every ton of PCBs.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2008, US EPA documents show the company asked state regulators if PCB air monitoring could be suspended. Every 12 days, Waste Management would sample the air and ship those samples off to be analyzed.

Ray LeClerc works for the California Department of Toxic Substances Control. He confirms the state suspended PCB air monitoring, which was required by the landfill's permit.

"When we originally started the program in 2006, the facility said, 'Well we shouldn't have to do these, they are heavy, we wouldn't normally find them.' And we said, 'Well, let's look for a while, before we don't sample them,'" LeClerc says.

Town1"It's possible they could leave the site through dust, or through heavy wind, and we did that for a couple years, and we didn't find anything above ambient. So we thought there was enough record there to stop the analysis." 

So far, there's been no study or investigation tying any increase in unmonitored PCB's to the birth defect cluster. But Maura Alatorre wonders how the state can clear the facility when nobody knows how many PCBs were in the area's air. 

"At that time, we were receiving a lot of PCB's, and a lot of trash that wasn't monitored. And I think around that time the air was more contaminated, and of course, we'll never know the results because they didn't monitor it," says Alatorre.  

Alatorre says she has hired a lawyer to investigate, with the help of specially-trained scientists.  "It's not about the money," she says, "We will find out why my son is this way. So he can know, and the other children born here."


View Kettleman City, CA in a larger map
PART TWO: UNANSWERED QUESTIONS (originally aired January 6, 2011)
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Halfway between Los Angeles and Sacramento is the town of Kettleman City. About 1500 people live there, most of them are impoverished Latinos.

Every day, people breathe polluted air tainted with pesticides and diesel fumes. They bathe their kids in toxic water. In just over two years, almost a dozen babies were born with defects.

The environmental and health problems here are well known by state regulators. Ray LeClerc with the California Department of Toxic Substances is one of those regulators. He says he met with the mothers of those crippled or disabled children to discuss their concerns.

Part 2_3"It was deeply affecting. The vast majority of those mothers spoke Spanish. They were within three feet of me, and they were talking, and one woman was holding her baby, and she was crying, and she wanted to know why this happened to her. She wanted answers," LeClerc recalls.

Answers can be a hard thing to come by for the residents of Kettleman City. Some regulatory agencies, like the California Department of Public Health, won't comment for this story.

LeClerc was one of the few state regulators that would comment. The answers, at times, were less than satisfying. LeClerc explained why, by the spring of 2008, the state stopped air monitoring for PCBs at the facility just as the facility was processing large volumes of PCBs from San Francisco, this way:  

"We thought that might come up today, but it turned out to be a more difficult exercise, so we'll have to get back to you on that," LeClerc says.

It's been more than three weeks, and the state still hasn't gotten back to me.

Part 2_2x"When I look back at the decision making documents," LeClerc continues, "And I wasn't there, I wasn't part of the decision making, but when we look back, it wasn't clear that PCB's were being mishandled during that time period."

Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is working on a report that includes PCB air monitoring. LeClerc describes the federal-state coordination as "not a seamless effort."

"I would just say, when you look at it also, through hindsight, you look at the record, and we did not detect anything above ambient, and so, while the effort is not seamless, it certainly indicates that PCBs are not a problem from the facility," LeClerc says.

While the state's limited monitoring shows no problems from the facility, federal regulators have found PCB's to be a problem at the facility.

Last year, the U.S. EPA fined Waste Management Inc, the company that owns the landfill, more than $300,000 for mismanaging PCBs.

The U.S. EPA has also hired Daniel Wartenberg, an epidemiologist, to monitor scientific data on behalf of the people living in Kettleman City.

"I think it's important that monitoring be conducted in this area," Wartenberg says. "What's going to these people, what are they breathing, what are they drinking, what are they being exposed to in other ways? But if we don't have those data, how do we say, well, what was going on five years ago, what was in the air? 'Well, I don't know. '"

The Kettleman Hills Facility appears to be one of the cleanest looking landfills in the state. The maintenance crew keeps the grounds tidy. There are fewer trucks coming through the facility these days. Waste Management has had to limit the amount of trash trucks lately, as the company is waiting on approval to expand its toxic landfill.

Part 2_1Simply put, the landfill is running out of room. Part of the hold-up has been the state's investigation into the birth defects.

Brian Bowen oversees environmental protection for Waste Management, and he says the theory that dirt contaminated with PCBs flew through the air from the landfill to Kettleman City is not plausible.

"The state just conducted a very thorough community assessment, looked at all the data. We've done monitoring at the facility for a long time, we're soon to release the PCB congener study that goes in great detail to PCBs around perimeter around the facility," Bowen says.

Bowen says more testing would bring more negative results. That PCB testing costs "somewhere in the ballpark" of $36,000 to $40,000, annually. Yet, Bowen says he "doesn't believe" cost to be the reason for discontinuing the testing.

So, if cost is not a concern, why not just test so the people in Kettleman City can have some peace of mind?

"I don't know the answer to that question to whether we will or will not continue doing it," Bowen says. "The state may decide it's important if we do."


Ray LeClerc, the regulator in charge of PCB air monitoring, says he is unsure whether testing will resume. As for the U.S. EPA's report, it's due out next week, although it has been postponed several different times.

At the very least, there is a lot of uncertainty about Kettleman City. At first, state and local authorities said there was no birth defect cluster. Then they said there was.

Currently, the state says there is no childhood cancer cluster in Kettleman City. But epidemiologist Daniel Wartenberg, says the state's own data suggest there is.

After an expensive investigation, the state seems unable to answer perhaps the most important question: Why were 11 children from a small truck stop town born with debilitating defects in a two and a half year period? 

PART THREE: WATER WORRIES (originally aired January 7, 2011)
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Twice a week, Wendy Ramos leaves her Kettleman City home, drives thirty minutes to the town of Hanford, where she buys groceries, gas and water. The filtered water costs two dollars for five gallons. She takes home fifteen gallons---and uses it for cooking and drinking. Ramos says she will not drink the water that comes out of the tap, unless it is an emergency.

Part 3_1"I don't like the water and because of the risks one runs by drinking the water here.  I think it makes people sick," Ramos says in Spanish.

The tap water smells repulsive.

"It always stank," says Maricela Mares Alatorre, another Kettleman City resident.

"It smelled really bad. It had a weird taste. Sometimes it would come out yellow. So, we didn't drink it for those reasons. It's contaminated, high levels of arsenic, but we also have benzene," she says.

Arsenic is often naturally occurring in Central Valley well water, and the benzene is believed to be a left over byproduct from the town's oil drilling past.

Mares-Alatorre says clothes washed in the water sometimes smell like rotten eggs. On the day I visit her at her house, the water coming out of her tap smells like bleach.

"Lately it has a different smell because they are chlorinating it now," says Mares-Alatorre.

Many in this town of about 1500 have just learned to live with the water.  The vast majority of the residents are Latino. The community itself is very poor, and the average household income is about $20,000 per year.

The water in Kettleman City comes from a well. Almost every state regulator agrees the well should be shut down, and a new water source Part 3_2acquired. But that will be expensive, and even the most optimistic estimates predict it will be at least a year until clean water flows from the tap.

"They should be given clean water now, and it should have happened a long time ago," says Daniel Wartenberg, an epidemiologist. He's been hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to work on behalf of the people who live in Kettleman City.

"These people should not have to be drinking, bathing, cooking water with contaminants in," Wartenberg continues. "If that means bringing in bottled water, if that means bringing in a water truck, whatever it means."

Rather than responding in person, officials with the California Department of Public Health sent us a copy of a letter originally sent to the local water board.

According to the letter, the state wants to drill a new well ---the arsenic and benzene would be treated. It would cost upwards of six million dollars.

Yet, the incomes of the people in Kettleman City are so low they might not even qualify for that minimal state assistance.

Bradley Angel is with the environmental group Green Action. He says these are old issues that nobody seems able to fix.

"I remember one of the Board of Supervisors, a number of months ago, was saying 'Oh we talked about this years and years ago!'" Bradley recalls. "And my response was, 'Are you proud of that? You knew about the contaminated water, Part 3_3that your constituents were drinking poison water, and you did nothing about it?"

Long term benzene exposure can lead to anemia, cancer, and a weakened immune system, while arsenic is poisonous to people.

Wendy Ramos says she's not exactly sure what the health risks are, but she knows water is not supposed to smell like rotten eggs, or bleach, or have color in it. She will use it to bathe, brush her teeth and wash her dishes.

Yet, until the water comes out of the tap clear, pure and odorless, Ramos, and many of the people who live in Kettleman City, will continue to pay two dollars for five gallons of water they can drink without fear.
Host Jeffrey Callison interviews reporter John Sepulvado, Waste Management's Director of Environmental Protection Brian Bowen, and Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Green Action on Capital Public Radio's "Insight." (20:30)
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See and hear how Kettleman City residents Wendy Ramos and Maricela Mares-Alatorre and their families cope with contaminated water.
This 3-part series was written and produced by Capital Public Radio health care reporter John Sepulvado and edited by Alan Ray and Joe Barr. It was conceived and produced as a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communcation & Journalism.
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CLARIFICATION: In the original audio version of Part 3 we stated Wendy Ramos will never drink the water.  After reviewing the translation from Spanish, we determined that Ramos said she will not drink the water unless there is an emergency.
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