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Family Divided Over Landfill

Vida En El Valle, News Report, Rebecca Plevin Posted: Oct 03, 2009

Editor's Note: This is the third of a three-part series about Kettleman City's environmental justice movement. This series was produced with the support of a health and environmental health reporting grant from New America Media.

KETTLEMAN CITY -- In this community known for its history of environmental justice battles, the members of the Snchez family are waging their own internal fight. But theirs is the most civil of civil wars.

At community meetings and public hearings regarding the 1,600-acre hazardous and municipal waste landfill, which is located about 3.5 miles from the 1,500-resident community of Kettleman City, Tony Snchez, a waste facility employee, defends his company.

Meanwhile, Tony Snchez's step-daughter and mother-in-law, active members of the community's environmental justice groups, oppose the facility, and allege its operations are endangering the health of Kettleman City residents.

Outside the meetings, though, the family members have reached a sort of truce. They respect each other's choices, and even defend each other's actions.

"Whether he works there, or whether he doesn't, somebody needs to take care of that dump," said Lupe Alatorre, Tony Snchez' mother-in-law and an original member of the community organization El Pueblo Para Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water. "Why not the people of Kettleman City?"

"If we have people from Kettleman City working there, I feel safe," she said. "If something were to go wrong, or if they see something that's not right, they're going to have to tell us, because they live here, too."

Growing up in Kettleman City, Tony Snchez did not think of Waste Management -- his employer and the owner of the Kettleman Hills Facility -- as a source of controversy.

To him, Waste Management was nothing more than the sponsor of his Little League baseball team, the Kettleman City Tigers.

Tony Snchez's parents were both poor farmworkers, and Snchez said he and his teammates were only able to purchase their uniforms, due to the company's support.

"Hey, they're helping out the community, and thanks to them, I had a uniform when I was growing up," Tony Snchez said.

Tony started working at Waste Management in July 1999, a few weeks after he graduated from Avenal High School.

He started as a contract laborer, and was hired seven or eight months later to pick up trash, cut weeds, wash trucks, and paint, among other duties.

Over the past 10 years, he's worked his way up to heavy equipment mechanic, and now repairs the facility's trucks, bulldozers, compactors, excavators, and quarry trucks.

He spoke highly of his job and the company, which employs about 65 people at its Kettleman City facility.

"Out there, we're like a big family," Tony Snchez said. "It's a good friendly environment. Everybody that shows up is always happy, and they're always smiling."

He said Waste Management workers support each other by pitching in to buy flowers after an employee's relative passes away. He also said the company supports its workers by offering to pay a portion of an employee's higher level degree.

"Thanks to them, I have what I have, which isn't much, but it's an accomplishment," Snchez said. "Thanks to the job there, my little ones are growing up, and they're healthy, and we have insurance and all that.

"It's a really good company to work for," he said. "I'd recommend it to anybody."

Since the late 1980s, Lupe Alatorre has disliked the fact that Waste Management's facility is located so close to her community, potentially posing health risks to residents.

But in the nine years her daughter, Nancy Snchez, has been married to Tony Snchez, Alatorre has come to accept that her son-in-law works at the facility.

"I have a lot of respect for people," Alatorre said. "He likes it, and I have to respect that."

Nancy Corona, the 14-year-old daughter of Nancy Snchez and grand-daughter of Lupe Alatorre, is a member of the local youth group, Kids Protecting Our Planet, which opposes the waste facility. But the Lemoore Middle College High School freshman also said she is not bothered by the fact that her stepfather works at Kettleman Hills.

"I'm not really against Waste Management," Nancy Corona said. "I don't really have a problem with them. If he works there, it's fine with me."

The way she sees it, the landfill could have contributed to the recent incidence of birth defects in the community. But, she said, "it's not the only thing that is bad for our environment. It's lots of other, different things."

Nancy Corona said her ideas, and her participation in the group, has not affected her relationship with her step-father.

"He's very supportive of what I do," she said. "He sees it as something I like to do, and he's supportive of it. It's like a learning experience."

Helen Luibel, a spokeswoman for the waste facility, said several facility employees live in Kettleman City and nearby areas, and sometimes face resistance from family members or friends who don't agree with the company's operations.

"It always presents a great opportunity for Waste Management and our staff to inform family members, friends, and the community at large about what we do for business, and encourage them to come out, take a tour and visit our site," Luibel said.

Tony Snchez's wife, Nancy, has become the neutral player in the family's personal environmental justice fight. But when she was a child, Nancy Snchez was also active in the environmental justice movement.

She remembers marching from Kettleman City to the gates of Waste Management's Kettleman Hills Facility alongside her mother and other members of the community's environmental justice organization, El Pueblo Para Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water, chanting slogans like "S se puede!" (Yes, we can!)

At that young age, Nancy Snchez knew she was protesting the company's plans to build an onsite toxic waste incinerator, but she did not know much more than that.

"Just the word 'incinerator' was scary, and my mom was doing it, so I was doing it with her," Nancy Snchez said. "All I knew was that it was something that was going to be bad for the town."

Though she grew up protesting Waste Management, Nancy Snchez said she has developed a more balanced perspective on the issue, in part due to her husband's employment with the company, and to her recognition of the company's generosity toward the community.

"I'm getting older and I'm looking at things in a different way," Nancy, 33, said. She said she does not want community activists or the waste company to influence her opinions and said, "I want to figure it out on my own."

Unfortunately, some of Tony Snchez's neighbors have not been as accepting of his job as his family members are.

Snchez has attended public meetings regarding Waste Management's operations, both as a company employee, and because he wants to know what's going on in the community.

"If there's an issue, if there's problems, if there are birth defects, I want to know about it," he said.
During one meeting at Kettleman City's community center, Tony Snchez responded to accusations that the nearby facility was causing cancer, asthma, and birth defects among residsents. He said he, his wife, and his children are all healthy, even though he's worked at the facility for years.

"Of course, you're young right now," Tony Snchez remembers people saying to him. "Just wait until you get old."

Nancy Snchez normally avoids those meetings, but she accompanied her husband to that event. As she was leaving the event, she remembers people referencing her family's history of activism and saying to her, "Te compraron" ("They bought you out.")

"When I got home, I felt so bad," Nancy Sanchez said. "I've known these people all my life, you know, and they were yelling these things at me."

Tony Snchez resents the idea that he would risk his life for money, or that Waste Management could pay him to publicly defend the facility.

"No money in the world could ever pay my life. If I knew there was something risky, something bad there, I would go out and work at a restaurant (for less money)," Tony Snchez said.

Waste Management employees from five Central Valley facilities, Kettleman City residents and environmental activists will attend the Kings County Planning Commission public hearing regarding the proposed expansion of Kettleman Hills' hazardous waste landfill on Oct. 5 at the Kings County Fairground.

The commission will convene at 2 p.m., and county officials and Waste Management officials will give project presentations. The public will be able to comment on the project beginning at 6 p.m.

Nancy Snchez will accompany her husband to the meeting. She knows it will be uncomfortable to see her friends and family members opposing Tony's company, but she said she's prepared for that this time.

"I'm not going to say that I'm choosing sides," she said. "I am a resident, my husband does work there, and as a wife I think I should support him. I'm there to see what it's about."

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