Many of us have been to Kettleman City at one point or another. Located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on Interstate 5, this tiny town of 1,500 people is a pit stop on our way North or South. We stop here to get gas, a burger at the In-N-Out or a cup of coffee at the Starbucks.
What we may not realize is that Kettleman City is a community of Latino farm workers who have seen more than their fair share of hardship. The water in town is contaminated with benzene, a known carcinogen. 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.
In fact, on average 1,000 trucks pass by Kettleman City every 12 hours. Maricela Mares-Alatorre counted them one by one for months. Maricela, executive director of El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpia, our grant partner, has spent years struggling to clean up the air and water in her town and to protect the health of her neighbors, friends and family.
To add insult to injury, the community faces yet another environmental hazard: the giant toxic waste disposal facility located right outside the town. Chemical Waste Kettleman Hill facility is the largest toxic waste landfill west of Mississippi. And in 2006, the facility announced plans to triple its size. At the same time, the Kettleman City community announced their plan to stop them.
“Latino communities cannot bear the burden of all toxic waste in California. That is unfair,” Maricela told us pointing out that all three toxic waste landfills in California are located in Latino communities.
The community members believe that the toxins processed at the facility are causing the unnaturally high birth defects and health problems in their community. In a 14-month period from 2007-2009, 5 out of 25 children were born with a cleft lip and 3 of them soon died. One of the children that died was a little girl, America.
For six years , El Pueblo, Maricela and the community have been resisting the expansion of the toxic waste facility. And in the process something miraculous has happened. This predominantly poor, quiet, immigrant community transformed into a proud and determined group of activists who know their rights and demand their voices be heard.
Led by El Pueblo, they staged protests, trainings and workshops. They testified at the Board of Supervisors meetings. They spoke to journalists, scientists and politicians.
And the women took charge. It took a lot for a shy, humble, immigrant mother like Maria Saucedo to go to Hanford and testify in front of the Board of Supervisors about the death of her infant child. Imagine how her knees shook and how her voice cracked. But she did it. The community did it.
They’ve had many victories along the way. El Pueblo got the EPA to fine the facility for polluting and not disposing of the toxic waste correctly. They advocated for a water purification plan, and this year the California Department of Public Health committed to building a new water treatment plant in Kettleman City.
Though it seems like they cannot win, Maricela and El Pueblo continue to fight this David and Goliath battle. Though many have asked her, Why don’t you just leave, Maricela never considered giving up and moving away:
“I won’t leave because this is my town and these are my friends and this is where I go to church. This is the same church I had my first communion in and my quinceañera. Because my hand gets tired when I’m driving down the street from waving at people I know.”
NOTE: This story was part of our 2011-12 annual report. See the 2011-12 annual report.