Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Kettleman landfill comment deadline extended again

The state still is poised to issue a permit allowing expansion of the hazardous waste landfill near Kettleman City — a holding pattern that started in August.  But the official process has been extended again.

You might remember the state Department of Toxic Substances Control extended its public comment deadline from Sept. 4 to Oct. 11. on the landfill expansion plan. Last week, leaders extended it again to Oct. 25.

The latest extension came after two members of the environmental community requested it. The two are Ingrid Brostrom of The Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment and Bradley Angel of Greenaction, state leaders said.

Environmental justice advocates have fought desperately to stop this expansion, especially since the flow of hazardous waste has dwindled to a trickle. The landfill is nearly at capacity.

But Kettleman City stands to gain from the expansion of the landfill, say its supporters, including Kings County leaders.

The expansion will result in the landfill owner, Waste Management Inc., paying off a large debt owed by the town’s water system, so a new water treatment system can be built. Kettleman’s water is tainted by arsenic.

Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill near Interstate 5.

At the same time, there are good reasons for the state to cautiously approach this expansion. The Kettleman Hills landfill has long been painted as a villain — the West’s largest hazardous waste landfill at the doorstep of a small, Latino community.

Among some in Kettleman City, along Interstate 5 in Kings County, the landfill is a raw nerve. They blame a toxic environment for a rash of tragic birth defects a few years ago.

Plus, the state considers Kettleman City among the environmentally riskiest places to live in California.

Now an additional voice of opposition to expansion is coming from the Legislature. Last week, Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, sent a letter to the Toxics Substance Control agency, asking leaders to reject the expansion plan.

He said, “The people who live in Kettleman City have suffered enough and done their share since the disposal site was opened in 1975.”

Battle over Kettleman Hills landfill expansion continues

On Wednesday night, the tug of war continued over the proposed expansion of the Kettleman Hills hazardous waste landfill near Interstate 5.

Activists protested at the California Department of Toxic Substance Control’s open house in Kettleman City. Among their complaints: Six people failed to get notification of the state’s proposal to allow expansion of the landfill.

As a result, state leaders extended the comment deadline from Sept. 4 to Oct. 7. But the Toxic Substance Control leaders said they had gone above and beyond the legal notification requirements.

The state agency said more than 630 people were notified, but six people who had asked for email notification apparently did not receive it. Officials said they agreed to the deadline extension because people had raised the issue.

Activists criticized Toxic Substance Control, including complaints about the agency not fully explaining past violations linked to the landfill. The activists, led by the People for Clean Air and Water and Greenaction, have said they will sue to stop the expansion.

The fight over the project heated up in 2008 after a tragic series of birth defects was discovered. Activists blamed the 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.

Toxic Substance Control leaders say their study process on the issue was the most exhaustive in the agency’s history.

The agency has scheduled a public hearing in Kettleman City on Aug. 27.

Another complaint about hazardous waste site expansion

My Sunday story covered the money aspects of expanding the hazardous waste site near Kettleman City. One piece of the story just didn’t fit, and I mention it here because it illustrates how contentious the process has been.

Activists, who have long battled the nearby Waste Management Inc. landfill, say they didn’t like the Kings County-appointed committee that recommended many of the financial benefits on tap for Kettleman.

Among the benefits Waste Management agreed to provide if the expansion is approved: paying off a $552,000 debt on the town water system and donating $450,000 for school improvement.

Paying off the water system debt is no small favor for Kettleman City.  It will allow the state to provide $8 million for a water treatment plant — many consider it a leap forward for Kettleman City.

But the activists were rankled because there was only one Kettleman City resident on the committee.

The list included three people from Hanford and one each from Avenal, Laton and Lemoore. The county stands to gain $1.5 million annually in fees if the state allows expansion of the landfill.

The committee was stacked so that county approval of the landfill expansion was inevitable, the activists say.

“It was a joke,” said resident Maricela Mares Alatorre of the People for Clean Air and Water. “Where was the understanding of Kettleman City’s problems?”

Alatorre is also a full-time employee of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, a national advocacy group with an office in San Francisco. She says activists will do whatever they can to stop the expansion, including filing suit.

For their part, Kings County officials said they had problems filling out the local committee that suggested the financial benefits for Kettleman City.

In the end, Supervisor Richard Valle said he was able to add Avenal resident Alvaro Preciado, who has family in Kettleman City and cares deeply about the issues in the town.

Hazardous waste landfill leaders meet with Kettleman City

Hazardous waste landfill leaders met with folks in nearby Kettleman City this week about plans to renew a state operating permit. Kettleman activists continued to oppose it.

Since 2008, the activists, led by El Pueblo Parra el Aire y Agua Limpio, have slowed the landfill’s efforts, sparking a government investigation of birth defects. Investigators found no link between the landfill and Kettleman health problems.

The Kettleman City meeting this week was required as part of the process to get the permit renewal.

Such a renewal would usually be simple — it was in 2003 —  but  Waste Management Inc., owner and operator of the landfill, needs to expand. There’s almost no room left now for hazardous waste.

So the landfill’s future relies on expansion approval of at least four major government agencies, which are moving cautiously.

The four agencies are the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state Water Resources Control Board and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District.

Waste Management is hoping for the expansion approval sometime this year. The state operating permit expires in June, but the company can continue to operate as long as its renewal application is received before the June expiration.

Meanwhile, activists say they will fight every step of the way. They say there is a connection to continuing cases of childhood cancer and mortality in Kettleman City.

Activists, led by resident Maricela Mares Alatorre, say they suspect there are simply too many environmental risks around Kettleman — including pesticides, diesel exhaust, contaminated drinking water and oilfield operations.

But no government agency tracks all the sources at once. In a story last month, The Fresno Bee featured Kettleman City’s multiple risks.

Another study links dirty drinking water, small Valley towns

The evidence keeps mounting that people living in impoverished, Latino towns around the San Joaquin Valley are in danger if they drink water out of their taps.

Researchers this year linked dirty drinking water with many towns, such as Seville, Orosi and Tooleville in Tulare County. The culprit is widespread nitrates, which come from fertilizers, septic systems, animal waste and rotting vegetation.

This month, a new study reveals people living in similar communities also are at a high risk of drinking arsenic in their water.

Arsenic is routinely found in the water of such towns as Lanare in Fresno County, Kettleman City in Kings County and Alpaugh in Tulare County.  It is linked to skin, lung, bladder and kidney cancer. More recently, it has been connected to diabetes.

The lead researcher in the latest study is Carolina Balazs of the University of California at Berkeley.

She said, “We found that across the Valley, lower income communities had higher arsenic levels than their wealthier counterparts. These same systems may be the least equipped to comply with drinking water standards in the future, leaving residents at continual risk of exposure.”

California’s approach to cleaning up the problem has fallen far short for many years, say those living in the communities. A plan to build a water treatment plant in Tulare County has been caught in funding snafus with the California Department of Public Health for more than a year.

Balazs says California needs a new, well-funded approach over the long-term.

“In the meantime,” she said, “interim solutions need to be put in place so that residents of small communities are protected from dangerous contaminants like arsenic.”