Kettleman City families hopeful after EPA visit
Maura Alatorre holds her son, 2-year-old Emannuel, at her home in Kettleman City Wednesday. Emannuel was one of six children born with a cleft palate. (AP Photo) TRACIE CONE

Twenty-year-old Lizbeph Canales is still grieving the loss of her unborn child. She survived a ruptured appendix during her recent pregnancy. Her baby didn't.

It was last August. She was six months pregnant.

That's also when she made a haunting discovery: Her stillborn baby had a cleft palate and other facial deformities — a problem that has affected half a dozen mothers within the last two and a half years. Canales' baby's not part of the live-birth statistics but makes the seventh reported case of birth defect babies in Kettleman City since September 2007.

After months of silence, Canales is speaking out in public to share her story along with other mothers, whose lives are also affected by babies born with cleft palates and other deformities.

She was one of the mothers who sat down with Jared Blumenfeld, newly appointed regional director of the EPA's Pacific Southwest division, in a private meeting Wednesday after his tour of the nearby toxic waste facility run by Waste Management.

There has been a lot of heartbreak in the community, but a sense of hope reverberated among Kettleman City residents following an unprecedented visit by a key federal official.

"I think the moms felt that someone was listening to them at last. All of them said they felt really hopeful," said Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a Kettleman resident and community advocate.

It was the day the families of this rural farm community had long awaited.

After nearly two years of pleading for someone to listen to their concerns about an abnormally high number of birth defects, they got one of the biggest ears in the West — Blumenfeld.

Blumenfeld has promised to determine what his agency has done to analyze whether the problem is linked to the Chemical Waste Management Inc. landfill, which wants to expand.

Bob Henry, manager of the waste facility, maintains the operation on a hill 3.5 miles away from Kettleman is safe and hopes the scrutiny will improve lives in the community.

"We were pleased to welcome Jared Blumenfeld for his first visit to our Kettleman Hills Facility," Henry said in a statement issued after the visit. "We discussed with [him] the many environmental exposures that area residents face each day — from the more than 5.5 million trucks passing through on I-5 each year to drinking water quality."

Kettleman City, population 1,500, is a crossroads on Interstate 5, California's main north-south artery. Thousands of diesel trucks pass by every day. The town also is bisected by high-tension power lines and surrounded by the farm fields in which many of the residents work. The fields have been sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

When the issue was first raised last July by Greenaction, an environmental justice group, some skepticism was expressed about the claim.

Dr. Benjamin Hoffman, chief medical officer for Waste Management told The Sentinel at that time: "I'll make a guess that you'll not find that cluster, that it does not exist. There are some birth defects, but I'm going to bet there's no unifying case."

Still, the mothers want to know what is to blame for the problems if not the landfill full of PCBs and pesticides.

Blumenfeld met privately with families after a private tour of the waste facility. The families said afterward that Blumenfeld spoke generally about the need for better health monitoring. They called it a victory.

Blumenfeld said little about the meetings that his aides had described earlier as a listening session.

"It's an emotional thing to talk about," he said after spending 80 minutes in the home of Maura Alatorre, whose son, Emmannuel, was born two years ago with a cleft palate. "I learned a lot, and, hopefully, they feel better being able to share."

Kettleman City's plight is getting high-profile attention because of Blumenfeld as well as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has promised that two state agencies would look into the health issue.

But his announcement came only after repeated requests by Kings County officials to look into the issue since last summer. State health officials initially told the county they were reluctant to do a full investigation because they didn't think it would be fruitful.

State Department of Health officials have since scheduled a meeting with Kings County supervisors next Tuesday and with Kettleman residents that evening to present updated birth defect data and discuss next steps in their investigation.

The birth defects became a rallying point last year for residents trying to stop the expansion plans of the waste facility. Kings County finds itself in an odd position after being sued for approving the project while playing a role in convincing the state to investigate Kettleman's plight.

Meanwhile, residents want a moratorium on all proposed polluting projects near Kettleman, such as the landfill expansion and the Avenal power plant, Mares-Alatorre said.

"We don't know what's causing the birth defects, but we do know the environmental factors can cause them. So it seems irresponsible to add more pollution when the study is not even done," she said.

Magdalena Romero, whose baby was born with birth defects and later died, hopes that Blumenfeld's visit marks a turning point in their fight.

"I am very happy we were promised there would be a thorough investigation, and that Mr. Blumenfeld would be available to us and he would be there to help us anyway he can," Romero said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. The reporter can be reached at 583-2429.

(Feb. 4, 2010)

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