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Environmentalists, state settle differences over hazardous waste site

The commercialism of Kettleman City’s southern section along Highway 41 can be seen from beneath the Interstate 5 overpass looking into the southern San Joaquin Valley.
The commercialism of Kettleman City’s southern section along Highway 41 can be seen from beneath the Interstate 5 overpass looking into the southern San Joaquin Valley. Fresno Bee file

Maricela Mares-Alatorre has lived in Kettleman City since she was a child, and she has spent much of her life fighting for environmental justice.

“We are living next to a toxic waste dump. There’s arsenic in the water. There are pesticides in the fields,” she said. “There are layers of exposure. We are in the top 10 percent of environmentally vulnerable communities in the state.”

Now she can claim a victory.

In what both sides are calling “historic,” state agencies and environmental justice groups settled an administrative civil rights complaint filed with the federal Environmental Protection Agency that objected to how some Kettleman City residents were treated in the permitting process for Chemical Waste Management Inc.’s hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City.

“It’s the first such settlement with a state agency anywhere,” said attorney Ilene Jacobs at California Rural Legal Assistance, which represented one of the environmental groups.

The players for the state are the Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Environmental Protection Agency, while the environmental groups are Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice based in San Francisco and El Pueblo para el Aire y Aqua Limpia de Kettleman City (People for Clean Air and Water of Kettleman City).

It’s the first such settlement with a state agency anywhere.

Ilene Jacobs, California Rural Legal Assistance

Under the settlement agreement, the state agencies promised to account for language barriers when it reviews the landfill’s operating permit renewal application, as well as keep the community informed about government actions and look for ways to improve public health in the area, especially air and water quality.

Additionally, both the state agencies and the environmental justice groups said they would try to solve future disputes informally and quickly.

Mares-Alatorre sat in on the talks, and her signature is on the agreement.

The federal EPA, which provided the mediator, said in a statement that it “encourages the use of informal resolution techniques” and found the terms of the agreement to be acceptable.

The complaint was filed by the environmental justice advocates with the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which bans discrimination based on race, color or national origin and applies to programs that get federal funding.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Environmental Protection Agency get such funding.

Kettleman City is a small town in western Kings County on Interstate 5 best known to travelers as a place to stop for gas or fast food.

The town of approximately 1,500 was once home to oil field workers – one of the streets is named General Petroleum – but in recent decades has been home to farmworkers, many of whom speak only Spanish.

Several years ago, Kettleman City was thrust into prominence when babies were born with severe facial birth defects, and some died.

Chemical Waste Management’s nearby hazardous waste landfill was scrutinized by the Environmental Protection Agency – Jared Blumenfeld, former regional administrator of the EPA’s office in San Francisco, visited Kettleman City and met privately with several families – but no link between the landfill and the birth defects was established.

We are living next to a toxic waste dump. There’s arsenic in the water. There are pesticides in the fields.

Maricela Mares-Alatorre, Kettleman City resident

When the landfill received a renewal permit from the Department of Toxic Substances Control, Greenaction and El Pueblo challenged the renewal by filing a civil rights complaint with the federal EPA.

They complained that the environmental review documents were not translated into Spanish, requests to have them translated were denied and key public meetings lacked interpreters.

The settlement agreement “establishes a new statewide commitment to public participation and language access policies when expansion and renewal permits are sought for hazardous waste sites,” California Rural Legal Assistance said.

The state said in a statement that new policies will create “meaningful public participation and language access in its decision-making process.”

Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the agency supports environmental justice for communities near hazardous waste landfills.

“Our commitment to engaging communities, furthering environmental justice and civil rights, and enhancing transparency is demonstrated through successfully reaching this agreement,” she said in a statement issued when the agreement was announced.

Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act bans discrimination based on race, color or national origin (including limited-English proficiency), disability, sex and age in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance from the EPA. Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

The Department of Toxic Waste Substances Control also said it will help Greenaction and El Pueblo in their efforts to do a community based public health assessment, improve environmental monitoring and establish an asthma intervention program.

The EPA last year accepted the civil rights complaint and suggested mediation to the state, and the state agencies agreed, said Jacobs, the CRLA attorney.

“It was a breakthrough when all the parties agreed to go to mediation,” she said.

Other environmental groups have been watching with interest.

Ingrid Brostrom is a senior staff attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which has offices in Delano and Oakland and which played no role in the settlement.

“It’s quite an important development,” she said. “I hope this signals a new openness in working with communities.”

Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction, said the latest agreement immediately resulted in better relations with another state agency.

“Twenty-four hours after the settlement, we were called by the State Water Resources Control Board,” he said.

Board officials were preparing to hold a community meeting in Kettleman City to update residents on plans to build a water treatment plant and asked for help getting the word out, he said.

The meeting took place Wednesday in Kettleman City.

Water from community wells contains too much arsenic, so the state has promised to help build a $9.6 million plant to treat water from the California Aqueduct.

An issue involving endangered species has been resolved so the project is back on track, with construction to begin in April and the plant operational by the end of 2018, said project engineer Joe McGahan of Hanford.

For Mares-Alatorre, who is raising her family in Kettleman City, the news is welcome although a bit tardy, since the community has been promised clean water since the state investigated the birth defects.

“It makes me a little angry that it took us to file a civil rights complaint to get them moving with the solution they promised six years ago,” she said.

Environmental justice advocates said that in California, the only administrative civil rights complaint to be resolved in the same way also involved Greenaction, which filed against the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District over the permitting process for a proposed power plant near Avenal.

The 2013 settlement called for documents in multiple languages and other steps that the district already was doing, said Sayed Sadrehin, executive director of the air district.

“It was a good experience, all parties were happy,” he said.

Lewis Griswold: 559-441-6104, @fb_LewGriswold

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