It is good news that hazardous waste has slowed down in the largest hazardous waste landfill in the West, about 3.5 miles from Kettleman City, located in California’s San Joaquin Valley. However, if Waste Management (WM) has its way, the landfill will expand to allow more hazardous waste to be dumped in the community of 1,500 residents.
In exchange for the landfill’s expansion, WM has agreed to pay off the $552,000 the city owes for its water system, a system that uses wells to provide water for the city’s residents, water that is tainted with arsenic and benzene. The state will provide $8 million for a new water system if the city proves it can afford the costs of running the new system.
The hazardous waste landfill has caused serious problems for the residents. In 2008, two environmental groups, El Pueblo Para El Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water and Greenaction conducted a health survey of residents. The environmental groups found that there were at least 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and 2010, and at least three of the infants died. The media reports that there were only five babies with birth defects, and does not mention the infant deaths.
In January 2010, then Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger directed the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) and the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) to conduct a study on the cause of birth defects in Kettelman City. The two state agencies released a draft report in November 2010 which confirmed that Kettleman City had more birth defects than would be expected. However, the draft report did not find a cause for the birth defects.
A month after the release of the state’s draft report, the two environmental groups issued a joint report on the Kettleman City landfill. The report found numerous flaws with the state agencies’ investigation, including:
- The state did not investigate the infant deaths and did not biomonitor the residents to determine the types of chemicals in their bodily tissues and in breast milk. Biomonitoring has helped in other communities with similar problems.
- The state did not conduct a community health survey despite the fact that it was a door-to-door health survey that first found out the birth defect and infant death cluster.
- The state did not evaluate the cumulative health impacts of all the pollution sources.
- The state did not consider WM’s history of violations of hazardous waste laws, including when the EPA fined WM $302,100 in November 2010 for violations involving PCBs. A month earlier the California EPA and Department of Toxic Substances Control took enforcement action against WM for a spill of PCBs. The state agencies’ report did not mention those violations.
- The state did not factor in that shipments and disposal of PCBs at the Kettleman City landfill increased dramatically in 2007, the same year the birth defect cases started. The landfill received about 40 percent more PCBs in 2007 compared with 2005. PCBs are carcinogenic and can cause birth defects.
- The state’s report did not consider that illegal radioactive waste ended up in the landfill. A company that sent the banned waste to the Kettleman City landfill admitted doing so.
Given the many flaws in the state’s draft report, and the toxic nature of of the materials dumped into the Kettleman City landfill, it makes little sense to expand that landfill. It makes even less sense to hold hostage the city’s access to clean drinking water until more toxins can be placed into the area’s atmosphere.
Photo credit: Alex E. Proimos