At the doorstep to the largest hazardous waste landfill in the West, Kettleman City has some of California's biggest pollution burdens, the state Environmental Protection Agency says.
Yet a different state agency is poised to allow expansion of the hazardous waste landfill 3.5 miles west of town — a move local activists say they will fight to the end.
The residents belonging to People for Clean Air and Water say they believe they've found support in the EPA's new health-screening tool, which ranks pollution burden statewide. Kettleman City is among the worst 10%.
EPA has said the tool is not intended to be used to settle such arguments, but the activists are looking for any help they can get. This is a high-stakes fight against well-prepared state bureaucrats and a corporate giant — landfill owner Waste Management Inc.
Activists also are up against their own county leaders, who support the expansion. Kings County's economy stands to gain millions of dollars.
Even people who live in Kettleman, a farming town of 1,500, might also be persuaded by financial enticements, such as Waste Management paying off the town's water system debt.
"People in a needy community will be swayed by it, I'm sure," said resident Maricela Mares Alatorre of the People for Clean Air and Water. "We hope they can see past that. This is about more than money."
The fight over the landfill expansion near Interstate 5 has been heated since 2008 when a tragic series of birth defects was discovered. Many residents blamed the birth defects on "a toxic environment" surrounding Kettleman City.
Over the last few years, state and federal investigators conducted a thorough analysis and say they found no cause, adding there is no connection to the landfill.
Now, after the most exhaustive study process in its history, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control this month issued a draft permit to expand the landfill by 5 million cubic yards.
Three meetings have been scheduled in Kettleman City, beginning July 31, to talk about the permit. The final day to officially comment on the permit is Sept. 4.
The Toxic Substances Control agency must respond to the comments before the permit becomes final. It could happen in the next several months.
The current 10.7 million- cubic-yard site has been nearly full for many months. Deliveries have all but stopped, which has brought money issues into sharp focus.
"We have laid off more than two-thirds of our employees," said Waste Management spokeswoman Lily Quiroa. "There has been a big impact on our business here, and it has had an impact in the economy in this county."
Expansion would change all that. Kings County would get $1.5 million in fees annually on truckloads of waste, Waste Management says. The company also estimates the landfill operation would pump $17.5 million into the county's economy each year.
Of the benefits targeted for Kettleman City, the most attractive could be the company's commitment to pay off a $552,000 debt for the water system. With the water system debt free, the state can provide an $8 million grant for a water treatment plant.
"Healthy drinking water should be everybody's right," says Kings County Supervisor Richard Valle, whose district encompasses Kettleman City. Valle and other supervisors have supported the landfill expansion.
To replace Kettleman City's arsenic-tainted well water, the county arranged a supply of river water through the State Water Project. The Northern California water would be sent through the massive California Aqueduct to the new treatment plant.
Other Waste Management commitments to Kettleman City include $450,000 to the Reef Sunset School District for improvements at Kettleman City Elementary School. Another $100,000 will go for a health survey in the community.
The company also agreed to provide up to $150,000 for a safe pedestrian crossing on busy Highway 41, which runs through town.
Quiroa says Waste Management has helped in many other ways over the years, such as donations adding up to $800,000 over the last 15 years to the Kettleman City Foundation. The money helped construct the town's community center.
But resident activists won't bite. Alatorre says the group will do whatever it takes to stop the expansion, including filing a lawsuit.
Activists say they believe the landfill, along with pesticides, diesel exhaust, air pollution and arsenic-tainted drinking water, contributed to birth defects in town.
Five babies were born with a cleft lip or cleft palate over a 15-month period that ended in November 2008. Three of the babies died.
Residents replay the heartbreak each time state authorities hold a public meeting about the landfill expansion in Kettleman City. Last summer, resident Maria Saucedo tearfully spoke of the two babies she lost — one to birth defects and the other in a miscarriage.
"It's a nightmare," she said at the time.
In April, the state EPA seemed to confirm their fears in the new health-screening tool. Kettleman's biggest environmental burdens include the nearby hazardous waste and pesticides, according to the screening tool.
But Toxic Substance Control leaders, like EPA, say the tool was not designed or intended as part of environmental analysis under state law. The tool will guide the state in distributing some money from cap-and-trade auctions to the places that need it the most.
Toxic Substance Control leaders say they spent more than four years investigating the landfill application to expand. Officials say staffers and leaders met with Kettleman City residents more than 20 times, including a door-to-door survey in 2012.
The draft permit to expand includes such requirements as additional air monitoring and clean-running diesel delivery trucks.
In a separate initiative, the agency is requiring California's three hazardous waste sites — Kettleman Hills, Buttonwillow in Kern County and Westmoreland in Imperial County — to cut hazardous waste deliveries by half in 12 years.
"The requirements are the most protective that we've ever done for hazardous waste," said Rizgar Ghazi, Toxic Substance Control branch chief in the office of permitting.
Kettleman City activists are not assured. Alatorre, who says she was diagnosed with asthma last year, says the toxic waste must stop.
"Our community is already overburdened with environmental threats," she said. "The state can't say that we're a vulnerable community and then allow expansion of a toxic waste dump here."
The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6316, firstname.lastname@example.org or @markgrossi on Twitter.