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KETTLEMAN CITY – Magdalena Romero sat at a picnic table in this dusty town's one park, remembering the baby she named America.
Romero's little girl came into this world with a cleft palate, Down syndrome, a heart murmur and a fatal abnormality called trisomy 13. She left five months later in 2008.
Romero, 36, has five living children. The youngest is 4 and also is named America. Romero lifted America's shirt and showed me a scabby rash on her back. A doctor suggested Romero use bottled water to bathe her, not the foul tap water. Romero's second-youngest child is 9. She noticed a lump in the girl's breast. Doctors will perform a biopsy this week.
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No one knows the cause of it all. Perhaps it's bad luck. Maybe pesticides from nearby almond and pistachio orchards are to blame, or diesel exhaust from trucks on Interstate 5, or well water tainted by arsenic, or maybe the Kettleman Hills Landfill 3 1/2 miles away that accepts hazardous waste, although California's best scientists say the landfill is not the cause.
"All of it," Romero said through an interpreter, Maricela Mares-Alatorre, an activist who lives in Kettleman City and works for Greenaction, a small San Francisco nonprofit that focuses on this settlement of 1,400 people as it advocates for its view of environmental justice.
If there is any doubt that we Californians have a conflicted and hypocritical view of what is and isn't environmentally correct, take a look at how authorities have handled and mishandled Kettleman City's undrinkable water, and the hazardous waste landfill not far away.
Across I-5, up a hill and down the other side, Bob Henry sat in a conference room in the office of Kettleman Hills Landfill, owned by Waste Management, the nation's largest operator of landfills. The sprawling 1,600-acre facility is striking for how tidy it is, and for how few trucks come and go these days.
"My heart goes out to the moms who have lost babies," said Henry, who oversees Kettleman Hills, where he has worked since 1988. "I can say clearly that it is not caused by this facility."
Advocates and opportunists have been using the Kettleman Hills Landfill to highlight what they say are environmental justice issues since at least 1991, when the Rev. Jesse Jackson led a protest against a proposal by Waste Management to fire up a hazardous waste incinerator, since scrapped.
Bradley Angel, head of Greenaction, said by phone from his San Francisco office that hazardous waste landfills ought to be located "where the heads of Chevron live, where the heads of Chemical Waste Management live."
"All places should be looked at," Angel said, though he demurred when I asked if he would support a landfill in the coastal town of Pacifica, where he lives.
Waste Management applied to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control for a permit to expand its hazardous waste landfill in 2008. Five years later, the application languishes.
During the intervening years, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency opened and closed investigations to determine whether Waste Management properly handled cancer-causing PCBs, and whether Kettleman City is a victim of discrimination.
The California Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Public Health and other agencies undertook a detailed study of birth defects, cancer and the overall health of the community.
The investigation "did not find a specific cause or environmental exposure among the mothers that would explain the increase in the number of children born with birth defects in Kettleman City." The number of abnormalities has returned to more normal levels, though the state continues to monitor the situation.
At the height of its operation, Kettleman Hills annually would take 575,000 tons of hazardous waste, generally contaminated soil that requires special handling, delivered by 100 trucks each day.
Lacking a permit to expand the hazardous waste site and running out of space, Waste Management has curtailed the amount of contaminated waste it will accept to 10 trucks per week. However, California's vast amount of contaminated soil must go somewhere, and it does, mostly to other states.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control estimates that in 2006, 20 percent of California's hazardous waste was shipped outside the state. Now, about 64 percent of the waste is sent to other states. In other words, we can't bring ourselves to bury our gunk in California, but we will send it to Nevada, Utah and Idaho.
If contaminated soil is dumped in California, the soil must be handled according to stringent California regulations. However, when soil that is deemed to be hazardous under California law is shipped out of state, other states treat it according to their laws, which are less strict.
"That troubles me, troubles me greatly," said Debbie Rafael, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. "If our solution is to export our harm elsewhere, we have to be honest about what we're doing."
Lori Salazar walked her baby in a stroller up General Petroleum Avenue, the main street in Kettleman City, to Kettleman City School to pick up her oldest of five kids.
She worries about the landfill, but her biggest concern is the water. She won't let her kids drink it, she won't cook in it, and she doesn't buy her kids white clothes because they will turn brown. If you fill a glass, you can see sediment swirl. It has a metallic, chemical taste.
"It's nasty," she said. "It's gross."
Kettleman City relies on wells that pump water containing arsenic at levels above the safe standard set by California. Arsenic is a carcinogen that has been linked to birth defects. The well water also contains benzene, a toxic byproduct of the petroleum beneath Kettleman City.
The California Aqueduct is the man-made river that provides water for the farms where many Kettleman City residents work, and for the cities that are the market for much of what they pick. The aqueduct is a short walk from Kettleman City.
The solution seems simple: Stick a straw into the aqueduct. But it is all very complicated. At least five state and federal agencies have a role in Kettleman City's water situation, as does Kings County.
Politicians have been no help. Michael Rubio represented Kettleman City in the state Senate but he quit last month to take a high-paying job at Chevron. Rep. Dave Valadao, a Republican, is a first-termer in Congress. Assemblyman Rudy Salas, a Democrat who represents the area, also is a freshman, though he chairs a committee that has oversight over the water situation.
In 2010, U.S. Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, who have four decades of seniority between them, promised money for clean drinking water for Kettleman City. They haven't succeeded.
While the state has committed to funding a water treatment plant, Kettleman City's community services district owes $550,000 for a past attempt to fix its water system. Waste Management has offered to pay off the debt, but only after it gets its permit to expand Kettleman Hills and is generating revenue.
It's not clear when that might happen. If the state were to grant the permit tomorrow, Greenaction would sue. Upon learning that Magdalena Romero's 9-year-old daughter had a "breast tumor," Greenaction's Angel emailed a statement to officials saying: "A NINE YEAR OLD! THIS SHOULD NOT BE HAPPENING!" and urged regulators to "explore your conscience" before issuing permits.
"Business as usual is not acceptable," Angel said.
But business does proceed as usual, unfortunately. California sends most of its toxic waste to other states, where it's not handled up to California standards. And the people of Kettleman City spend money they don't have to buy bottled water, or they drink water laced with arsenic. Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.