Maricela Mares-Alatorre stands at her kitchen sink and describes the contaminated water that became a suspect in a high-profile cluster of birth defects in 2009.
“Usually, very early in the morning or late at night, there’s like a petroleum smell, like gas,” Mares-Alatorre says, as water trickles out of the faucet. “Sometimes during the day, while we’re washing the dishes, we’ll have a white dish, and all of a sudden, we’ll see the water is totally brown.”
Mares-Alatorre is the leader of a community group, called People for Clean Air and Water, which has spent decades fighting for environmental justice in Kettleman City (Kings County). In recent years, the group has worked to halt the proposed expansion of a nearby toxic waste landfill -- already the largest in the western United States -- and has pointed to the birth defects as a reason to block it.
A 2010 state investigation ruled out possible causes for the birth defects: It wasn’t the contaminated groundwater and it wasn’t the toxic waste dump.
But Mares-Alatorre and community members question that conclusion.
“What’s killing the babies of Kettleman City?” Mares-Alatorre asks. “We still don’t know. Is it the water? Could be. Is it Chem Waste? Could be. Is it a combination of everything? Maybe.”
The community has tried to improve its water for decades, and it’s saddled with debt from several improvement projects.
So here’s the dilemma: If the expansion is approved, then the landfill owner, Waste Management, has agreed to pay more than $500,000 to cover the debt hanging over the town’s current water system. That’s a mitigation effort the company agreed to in exchange for expanding its industrial facility near the community.
By paying off the debt, the company would move the poor farmworker community one step closer to affording clean but costly water from the California Aqueduct.
The situation has left Mares-Alatorre feeling conflicted.
“It’s a very difficult situation because naturally everyone wants clean water,” she says. “I’d love to bathe my daughter in clean water, and have her brush her teeth with clean water, but what we’re giving up in return is equally dangerous, we feel.”
But at the waste facility, officials tell a different story.
Cecilio Barrera, Waste Management’s community relations manager in Kettleman City, and Lily Quiroa, the company’s public affairs manager, give a tour of the more than 50-acre, mountain-shaped toxic waste landfill. Quiroa says the company has been committed to preserving the environment, and contributing to the nearby community, for three decades.
“We’ve helped this community above and beyond whatever we’re told to do, per permit requirements,” Quiroa says. “In good times we contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in this community.”
She says the company agreed to pay off the debt because it’s the right thing to do, not because they intended to buy support.
But Mares-Alatorre is skeptical.
“I know Chem Waste likes to frame it as they’re being good neighbors, but the truth is that they’re buying good will,” she says. “If you give me a choice between my good will and the health of the community, the health of my family, I’m going to choose the health of my family.”
Here’s what being debt-free would mean to Kettleman City: Residents could get a more affordable rate on water from the California Aqueduct. Then they could get about $8 million from the Department of Public Health to construct a new water treatment facility.
Mares-Alatorre says she would prefer to search for grant funding instead of relying on Waste Management for a solution to the water problem.
“We know the water has to be fixed,” she says. “It’s an important thing for our residents – but I also see other communities have significant water issues like nitrates, and arsenic, and they’re getting solutions, and they’re not agreeing to the expansion of a giant toxic waste dump in their backyard.”
Some Kettleman City residents say they are skeptical about the environmental impact report, completed as part of the expansion permit process, by a consultant for Kings County. Mares-Alatorre’s group says the report shouldn’t be used when the Department of Toxic Substances Control makes a final decision on the expansion.
Meanwhile, legislators in Sacramento have called on DTSC to change the way it regulates hazardous waste. A department spokesperson says the oversight hearing will not impact the Kettleman Hills expansion decision, which is expected in the next couple months.