KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. – Maricela Mares-Alatorre was well aware of the industrial and agricultural pollutants that surrounded her as she grew up in this tiny farm town just three miles from the largest toxic waste dump in the West.
Her parents had founded People for Clean Air and Water two decades ago to successfully fight a proposed incinerator at the dump. It was an early but defining struggle for the environmental justice movement.
Years later, with infant deaths and birth defects mounting in this Spanish-speaking community, Mares-Alatorre worried that those same poisons would damage her unborn baby.
She and other activists will take the battle to the Kings County Board of Supervisors today, urging a rejection of the proposed expansion of Chemical Waste Management Inc.’s 1,600-acre facility. In addition to recent infant deaths and birth defects, they point to the high asthma and cancer rates in this largely Latino town of 1,500.
Of 20 children known born here from September 2007 to November 2008, five had a cleft in their palate or lips, according to a health survey by community activists.
Owners of the waste facility have offered to fund a health study, but they say there’s no evidence linking the dump to the maladies. Other potential culprits are pesticides sprayed on nearby fields, discolored drinking water and exhaust from Interstate 5, the West Coast’s major north-south highway, that borders the town.
Mares-Alatorre, 37, had a healthy baby girl. But one of her relatives wasn’t as fortunate.
“A month before my child was born I was told he was going to have problems – he was going to be born with cleft palate, some deformity in his nose and part of his brain missing,” said Maura Andrade-Alatorre, 25.
Andrade-Alatorre’s son was born with severe birth defects. He survived, but three infants born with similar problems have since died. Clefts of the lip or palate routinely occur in fewer than 1 in 800 births in California.
Study not in time
Activists say the birth defects bolster their argument that the facility should not be allowed to grow pending an investigation. The Board of Supervisors directed the county health department to ask the state to oversee that study, but any results won’t be known prior to today’s vote.
Chemical Waste’s proposed growth has been slowly moving through a permitting process that involves local, state and federal regulators. Activists say they are prepared to sue if the supervisors approve the project.
Chemical Waste officials say they support a health probe but not a delay in the approval process. The company says it’s been working to be more open and engaged with the community, trying to get a medical clinic in town and pledging $500,000 so the water district can provide cleaner water. “The hard part is there’s a legacy of bad feelings; there’s a high degree of complexity,” said Chemical Waste spokeswoman Katherine Cole.
Andrade-Alatorre’s son, Emmanuel, 2, is doing better than predicted. He has started to walk but struggles to control his right side and falls a lot. “It’s really hard when you have a son that’s born with problems,” she said.