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EPA to investigate cluster of birth defects in Kettleman City

EPA to investigate cluster of birth defects in Kettleman City, California

Some residents blame a nearby toxic waste dump for health problems. U.S. says the study shows the Obama administration’s commitment to environmental justice.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said Tuesday that it plans to investigate a cluster of facial birth defects and other health issues among migrant farm workers in the impoverished California enclave of Kettleman City as part of the Obama administration’s pledge to shift the agency’s attention toward issues of environmental justice.

Residents suspect the facial deformities are linked to a nearby toxic waste dump. The dump is set to be expanded to accommodate waste from large population centers, including Los Angeles, and residents have filed a lawsuit against the Kings County Board of Supervisors challenging its approval of the expansion.

In an interview, Jared Blumenfeld, administrator for the EPA’s Pacific Southwest region, said the case meets the standards of the Obama administration’s decision this month to make environmental justice a priority.

“Kettleman City is a very vulnerable community at the confluence of large agriculture and pesticide use, heavy truck traffic, a chemical waste facility accepting PCBs and a proposed 600-megawatt power plant,” Blumenfeld said. “This is also a community trying to be represented in a way to get its voice heard.

“Our job is to make sure that we look under every rock and try to see if there is a causal relationship between all these activities and the health impacts on the ground,” he said. “We need to provide real information, based on science, not just from the company proposing a project.”

The EPA’s announcement was welcomed by Chemical Waste Management, which owns the toxic waste facility about 3 miles southwest of Kettleman City, according to company spokeswoman Kit Cole. “We think our site is very protective of human health and the environment,” she said. “But we also recognize that the families of Kettleman City need and deserve answers.”

Blumenfeld cautioned against unrealistic expectations of the federal government’s study of Kettleman City, a town of about 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking residents located just off Interstate 5 about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. “We may not find a smoking gun when we do our health analysis, or pinpoint the exact causal relationship between the environment and harm,” he said. “But that should not hinder our ability to act.”

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