In spite of the objections from irate townspeople and environmental protestors, the Board of Supervisors in Kings County, California, authorized the growth of a local toxic waste disposal site that has carried thousands of tons of asbestos, among other hazardous materials. The dumpsite, located in the small town of Kettleman City, typically handles more than four hundred truckloads of toxic waste per day.
At this point, the site is the only one in the entire state of California that accepts certain types of toxic waste, including highly dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). According to estimates from the US Environmental Protection Agency, the Kettleman City site takes in nearly two million pounds of asbestos tailings every year, as well as three million pounds of lead-based compounds and more than one hundred thousand pounds of arsenic.
In the small community of Kettleman City, with a population of less than two thousand, the dumpsite has been cited as a leading cause of birth defects in local children. With twenty births recorded among area families in fourteen months beginning in September 2007, five of those twenty were born with cleft lips or cleft palates, a startling twenty-five percent birth defect rate, with three of those five dying before their second birthdays. According to data from the state’s health offices, the standard rate for the occurrence of cleft lip or cleft palate is less than one in eight hundred.
Another concern with the expansion of the dumpsite comes from the additional asbestos that may be brought in from other areas. Currently, the dump accepts waste from all parts of the state, as well as neighboring states and northern Mexico. With the growing use of asbestos-laced concrete in some parts of Mexico as an inexpensive construction material, residents are concerned that some of the asbestos waste will become airborne, which could lead to a rise in the incidence of mesothelioma, a deadly form of lung cancer, and other respiratory ailments.
The owners of the dumpsite, Chemical Waste Management, Inc., proposed the expansion of the site to members of the Kings County Board of Supervisors. The company contributes as much as $3 million every year in taxes and other fees to the county and is the largest firm in the area. Company officials also have promised to support a health study into the high incidence of birth defects, cancer and other ailments near the site, but do not agree with area residents that exposure to the asbestos and other waste products are directly responsible for the health issues.
Despite the contributions that Chemical Waste has made to Kings County’s economy, very little of that impact has spread to Kettleman City. The town is primarily made up of farm workers, with over ninety percent of them having Spanish as their first language. Environmental activists claim that Chemical Waste is not properly facilitating community involvement in the decision to expand the dumpsite, as they have not provided Spanish translations of their documents or minutes of their meetings discussing the issue.
Although the Board of Supervisors has approved the expansion, federal and state officials still must sign off on any proposal. Maricela Mares-Alatorre, director of the community action group People for Clean Air and Water, is calling for those officials to investigate the high incidence of birth defects in the area and has joined with other activist groups in looking into pursuing legal action against the county after their “yes” vote.
Sources: KMJ Radio, Associated Press