This summer, Kettleman City residents will once again be surveyed to determine possible links between an area landfill and birth defects and disease.
The Kings County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a survey last week that gives Public Health Institute permission to speak to residents about Chemical Waste Management Inc. and the health of their families. Six people will conduct the door-to-door survey and meet with the community. The survey will begin in June 2016 and be completed by June 2017.
The survey was part of a 2009 agreement reached between Chem Waste, residents and a board-appointed assessment committee after Chem Waste submitted a request to expand its hazardous waste facility near Kettleman City.
District 2 Supervisor Richard Valle, who represents Kettleman City, said previous studies have already found the landfill to pose no special health risks, and this survey will be “procedural.”
“We were told, ‘we’ve conducted the most extensive survey in the state of California,'" Valle said.
Valle was referencing a state investigation by the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal/EPA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) in 2010.
The study was unable to determine the reason 11 babies were born with physical deformities, namely cleft palate, between September 2007 and March 2010. Three of the babies died.
Valle said in addition to state and federal government surveys, the board has “gone above and beyond” to address resident concerns.
“From January 2009 to December 2009, it was a year’s worth of meetings [with the community],” he said. “For the first time, we also held some of our board meetings in Kettleman City, so people could attend,” he said.
He also stressed that board approval of the hazardous waste expansion came with community approval.
“I’ve represented Kettleman City for eight years, and by now I know this: the majority of the residents in Kettleman City are supportive of Waste Management doing business there,” he said.
Chem Waste’s 34-year-old landfill is 3.2 miles away from Kettleman City, and the hazard waste facility takes in materials such as petroleum contaminated soil, latex paint and groundwater.
Valle adds that he wasn’t on the Board of Supervisors in 2005, when Chem Waste submitted an application for a conditional use permit, and a board-appointed Local Assessment Committee (LAC) was formed. Had he been a board member, he says he would have given the community more representation.
“It’s fair for anyone in the community to have seen more people in the community on the LAC,” he said.
From 2005 to 2009, LAC met with the community, and members voiced concerns over increases in birth defects, namely cleft palate and cancer. The committee reached an agreement with the community and landfill management, which included funding a $100,000-health survey.
However, not all Kettleman City residents are convinced this new survey will collect needed data. Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community member who spoke at the May 24th supervisors's meeting, said she’ll take the survey “with a grain of salt” knowing it’ll be paid for by the landfill company.
“For one, they won’t be bio monitoring, for another, it’ll be a questionnaire, what are they going to find different?” she asked.
Bio-monitoring is a way to measure chemicals in a person’s body fluids or tissues, such as blood or urine.
Mares-Alatorre has lived in Kettleman City for 39 years, and is a community organizer and policy analyst for Green Action, an organization that works for environmental, economic and social justice.
She says the 1,500-memember community has had five babies born with cleft palates, while the average rate is one out of every 1,000 babies. She also adds some women may fear being stigmatized, since “only six came forward” in 2009.
Mares-Alatorre contends that the spike in birth defects, as well as “one child with bone cancer, [and] a child with leukemia in the same year” coincides with the closure of a PG&E power plant in Bayview-Hunters Point, San Francisco in 2008.
“We’re told by activists in that area that PCBs from the power plant were sent to Kettleman,” she said.
Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) is a family of toxic chemical compounds known to cause skin diseases and suspected of causing birth defects and cancer.
Chem Waste public affairs manager for waste management Lily Quiroa says the “facility exists for the protection of human health,” and that no correlation has been found in “any of the extensive studies that took place.”
“We’ve been a hazard waste facility for over 30 years, and that includes municipal solid waste,” she said. “Very, very extensive studies took place in order to get approval for the expansion.”
She adds that it’s the first expansion permit the facility permit has obtained since it opened.
The new survey, which begins this summer, will address the expansion by looking at both old and new data. Public Health Institute’s Marta Induni will serve as the survey’s principal investigator.
“We’re looking at the old instruments, [and] the old questionnaire,” Induni said. We’re going to work with the county and community to have the holes in the previous questionnaire addressed.”
She added that the surveyors will attempt to interview someone from each household in the city. In order to assess statistical significance, collected data will be compared with the California Cancer Registry and the California Birth Defects Monitoring Program.
Her research group will work with Cultiva la Salud, a Fresno-based health equity group, and partner with community members for data collection.
“This survey is more about the community perceptions, attitudes and behaviors,” she said. “Hopefully the survey will point to areas of concern that will be addressed by county.”
Induni said biomarker work isn’t included in the proposal, but they will look into it if there’s funding.
Chem Waste received an expansion permit from the state in 2015, and construction is underway for the expansion of the hazard waste landfill.