Driving Highway 41 south from Fresno, Margaret and I did four u-turns in Kettleman City. The u-turns were necessary because things in Kettleman City go by quickly. More than a crossroads, the census designated area (not officially a town or city) sits back a little from the intersection of Highway 41 and Interstate 5.
We heard about it because of the birth defects. This was a fresh story in 2007 and 2008, when in the space of a little more than one year 5 out of 25 babies were born with birth defects. The birth defect cluster was discovered by an organization called Green Action, who were performing a community health survey. Three of the babies died.
Between the mid 1980s and around 2007, the California Department of Health recorded five birth defects in Kettleman City; but in the next three years, eleven birth defects were recorded.
Residents blamed the Kettleman Hills Hazardous Waste Facility nearby, operated by Waste Management, Inc. The hazardous waste facility has been near Kettleman City since the early 1980s. In January of 2010, the EPA said it was going to investigate the cluster of birth defects.
In November of 2010, the California State Department of Public Health, who had been running an investigation concurrent with the EPA, said that the hazardous waste facility was not the cause of the birth defects. However, in December of the same year, the US EPA fined the landfill $302,100 for violating regulations on proper management of PCBs.
Like most hazardous waste facilities, the Kettleman Hills facility has been fined before. As we learned at the hazardous waste facility near the Columbia Ridge, in Oregon, dealing with hazardous waste is not as precise as one might think. Most hazardous waste facilities have laboratories on site where they sample the material before landfilling it, in order to determine what sort of treatment is required. Between 2005 and 2011, the Kettleman Hills facility had documented 18 instances where the laboratory made mistakes and hazardous material had to be dug up.
The Kettleman Hills Hazardous Waste Facility was fined again in 2011, this time $400,000 and required to spend a further $600,000 on updates to their laboratory. Despite these troubles, Waste Management is planning on expanding the Kettleman Hills facility, “To better serve the surrounding communities and their business needs.” The expansion has been in the works for some time, but was put on hold by the state during the investigation. Currently the US EPA has issued a Notice of Deficiency in response to the facility’s application for expansion, citing “the complex permitting record created by the numerous different updates and amendments” in the application.