El Pueblo Fights Back Against Toxic Waste - Women's Foundation California
A young mother testifies. Her son was born with cleft lip.

Kettleman City is in the news again. But it’s not good news. This community of 1,500 Latino families is once again asked to take one for the team.

They’re asked to continue accepting treated human waste better known as chunky sludge and see it composted a few miles east of their city.

Six years ago the residents launched a lawsuit demanding that this toxic import stop, but, in the meantime, every day, this sludge is being shipped by the truck loads from Los Angeles County to Kettleman City.

Last week the Fresno Bee published an article about this ongoing legal action and about our grant partner El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpia (People for Clean Air and Water). We also wrote a story about El Pueblo in our annual report earlier this year. The story was titled Taking on Goliath.

Almost every possible environmental hazard plagues this community: The water in town is contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen, which means that the residents have to drink, cook and brush their teeth with bottled water. The air is contaminated with pesticides from the surrounding farms and with diesel emissions from the trucks that pass daily through the nearby I-5 junction with Highway 41.

And, to top it all off, the largest toxic waste landfill west of Mississippi is located right outside of their town. It processes not only asbestos, pesticides and petroleum products, but also materials made with a banned chemical PCB, which is linked to cancer and birth effects.

Kettleman City residents never accepted their fate, but have valiantly resisted this toxic waste for years. For example, in 2008 they conducted research with the San Francisco-based Greenaction and they discovered unnaturally high rates of babies born with cleft lips as well as miscarriages in the community.

When they tried to correlate this observed high rate of birth defects with the continuously accumulating and diversifying toxic waste in their immediate environment (the above mentioned PCB, for example), the state Department of Public Health and the federal EPA told them that no such correlation exists.

The two agencies conducted research in the town and found no statistically significant evidence to correlate the high levels of pollution in water, air and soil to the residents’ health problems.

The residents and our grant partner El Pueblo are not satisfied with the results of the research. Maricela Mares-Alatorre, executive director of El Pueblo, informed us that for her the research was a “disheartening” experience. It was a basic 18-question questionnaire, women were never bio monitored and no blood samples were taken to see if what was inside of the women’s bodies matched the pollutants in any way.

As a result, the residents led by El Pueblo continued launching law suits, testifying in front of their Board of Supervisors, protesting as well as educating their children and families about the possible effects of the various toxins in their immediate environment.

“Latino communities cannot bear the burden for all toxic waste disposal in California,” Maricela told us. She was referring to the fact that all three waste landfills in California are located in Latino communities.

“Where should it go then? It has to go somewhere, right?” she continued. “But there are other cities with a lot more resources that should be coming up with solutions. It’s absolutely unfair to put toxic waste in the communities that are least able to come up with an answer.”

It’s time that this community—their health and their rights—is taken seriously. And it’s time to use our technological savvy and plentiful resources to create new solutions for this wicked problem of accumulating toxic waste.

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