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Three Generations Fight Landfill

Vida en el Valle, News Feature, Rebecca Plevin Posted: Sep 27, 2009

KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. -- This small, dusty community, commonly known as little more than the halfway point on Interstate 5 between San Francisco and Los ngeles -- and a great place to grab an In-N-Out Burger -- is an unlikely place to give birth to the grassroots environmental justice movement.

And the members of the Mares family -- a 59-year-old former farmworker with a high school education, a teacher who works with farmworkers, and a teenage boy who can't put down his new iPhone -- are the unlikely heros of the local environmental justice movement's three chapters.

Unlikely, that is, until the family members are asked why they have remained committed to the movement, which has lasted more than two decades and spanned three generations.

They respond in a similar fashion -- with steady voices and intense gazes -- as if, in this family, passion and determination are hereditary.

They express anger over how their majority Latino farmworker community has been the unwilling home of the state's largest hazardous-waste landfill for about 30 years, and they express a sense of responsibility for protecting the health of their neighbors.

"I think it's a legacy that I inherited from my parents, and, unfortunately, my son has it, too," Maricela Mares-Alatorre said. "You wish it would all go away, but it doesn't."

For three generations, the Mares family has led Kettleman City's struggle against the Waste Management -- Kettleman Hills Facility, a municipal and hazardous-waste landfill about three-and-a-half miles southwest of Kettleman City.

MaryLou Mares, 59, helped create the group El Pueblo Para El Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water) in the late 1980s, when Kettleman City residents were fighting to stop Waste Management from building a toxic waste incinerator at its facility.

Maricela Mares-Alatorre, 37, took up her mother's fight in the mid-1990s, when Waste Management proposed layering municipal and hazardous waste in a new landfill.

Miguel Alatorre, 15, a leader of the local youth organization Kids Protecting Our Planet, is helping fight the proposed expansion of Kettleman Hills' hazardous waste dump.

Waste Management's latest proposal, coupled with a local health crisis -- the recent discovery that five babies were born in the Kettleman City area with birth defects within two years and the death of three of those infants -- has reignited the environmental justice movement.

The Kings County Planning Commission is scheduled to hold a meeting on Waste Management's landfill expansion proposal Oct. 5 at the county fairgrounds.

MaryLou Mares and her husband, Ramn, bought a modest home in Kettleman City in 1977. At that time, the small, tranquil community seemed like a pleasant place to raise a family.

The Mares family could not have predicted they were moving into a community that would eventually be known as the birthplace of the grassroots environmental justice movement, which is the fight to ensure that minority and low-income communities are not disproportionately burdened with environmental risks or hazards.

Before Kettleman City was home to a waste facility, it held the promise of oil.

When the community was founded in 1929 during California's oil boom, Kettleman City was on track for prosperity. By 1940, the community boasted 600 residents, and the town featured hotels, an elementary school and a Kings County library branch.

Some of the community's street names -- General Petroleum Avenue and Standard Oil Avenue -- are reminders of the wealth that could have been. But the oil boom began to decline by 1945, and the community now boasts few other signs of prosperity.

Today, the 1,500-resident community straddles a dusty, agricultural portion of State Route 41, a few miles north of the intersection of 41 and Interstate 5.

A green sign along 41 -- reading "Kettleman City: Population 1,505; Elevation 240" -- welcomes travelers. In a blink of an eye, visitors cruising south on the highway pass two convenience marts, an auto-parts store, a gas station and a county library.

The residential area off this portion of the highway consists of about a dozen streets lined with small homes.

Some homes are maintained and landscaped, but other homes and trailers are dilapidated and in need of paint. Dust -- not grass -- covers the front yards of many homes, and the streets lack curbs, gutters or sidewalks.

The community's residents are 92.7 percent Latino, and 88.5 percent of residents speak a language other than English at home, according to the 2000 census.

The median family income in 1999 was $21,955, and about 38.6 percent of families lived below the poverty line, the 2000 census said. The federal poverty line for a family of four was $17,050 in 2000.

Less than two miles down the road is the Kettleman City commercial district, a strip of fast-food restaurants and gas stations that has become a favorite waypoint for drivers traveling on I-5 between San Francisco and Los ngeles. The main draw along the strip is the bustling In-N-Out Burger, which is the top sales-tax generator among all retail restaurants in Kings County.

A few miles past the business district is Waste Management's Kettleman Hills Facility, a 1,600-acre landfill that handles municipal solid waste and hazardous waste.

Waste Management purchased the facility in 1979 because of its ideal geographical location, said Bob Henry, the company's senior district manager. He said the facility, which employs about 65 people, has no ties to Kettleman City's air or water supply.

Henry said the company prioritizes human and environmental health and takes safety precautions through onsite air and water-monitoring systems and double-lined landfills. The facility also is regulated by more than 10 government agencies at the local, state and federal level, according to company information.

The facility is hardly visible from the road, but the company maintains a visible presence in the community through sponsorship of Little League teams, participation in the Kettleman City Foundation, donations to the local school district to maintain and operate a community swimming pool during the summer, weekly maintenance of the Kettleman City Elementary School sports fields, and participation in the Adopt-a-Highway program, among other projects.

Juan Ibarra, who works closely with the community through the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said Kettleman City is within California's 20th Congressional District, which was ranked last among the nation's 436 congressional districts in a 2008 study that measured health, education and income.

"On top of that, you throw a chemical-waste company in your backyard, you have the factors of no grocery store, a cluster of fast-food places, no sidewalks, no lighting, and you have dust everywhere," Ibarra said. "All these [(factors)] make up probably one of the neediest communities in California, if not the nation."

Such life-quality issues, combined with the recent discovery of a cluster of birth defects in the community, also make Kettleman City fertile ground for continuing the environmental justice movement, said Bradley Angel, who began working with Kettleman City in the late 1980s.

Today, Angel is executive director of San Francisco-based Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

"I believe it is now the most intense, and one of the most important, environmental justice fights in the country today and in recent years," Angel said.

By many accounts, MaryLou Mares was an improbable community activist.

She dropped out of high school after 10th grade and was a stay-at-home mother and a seasonal farmworker.

Her husband had a history of labor organizing, but MaryLou said she was raised to believe it is improper to challenge people in authority.

But one day in the late 1980s, she found a note on the door of her Kettleman City home, informing her of an upcoming community meeting to discuss Waste Management's plans to build a toxic-waste incinerator at its facility.

She wasn't sure what an incinerator was, but she had a hunch it would be bad for her community.

"This is something that's going to affect me," MaryLou remembers thinking.

She knew she had to go to the meeting and that she had to question those in power.

"You see something wrong, you've got to try to change it," she said during an interview in the three-bedroom Kettleman City home that she and her husband share with her daughter's family.

MaryLou started attending meetings about the incinerator and helped form the environmental justice group El Pueblo. The group later sued Kings County, alleging that the county failed to adequately address all potential environmental impacts of the incinerator in its environmental impact report and that the report was defective because it wasn't translated into Spanish.

Throughout that fight, MaryLou said one of her goals was to make government officials accountable to the people they represent.

"Why are they there if not to protect people?" she said.

And, from her perspective, Kettleman City residents' health was being jeopardized, not protected.

"I don't know why they can't see it," she said. "If you put something in the air, everybody is going to breathe it."

Maricela was in high school when her parents began challenging the waste incinerator, and she remembers being surprised by her mother's assertiveness and knowledge of the proposed project.

"It's not easy reading the technical data," Maricela said. "Now I'm college-educated, and I still have trouble reading some of the stuff that comes out. And she could read it and talk about it and speak to people about it, and that really threw me for a loop, watching her do that."

Angel, who at the time was a Greenpeace employee assisting Kettleman City residents with their fight, said MaryLou became a role model and an inspiration for other community members.

"When other residents saw someone like them -- a former farmworker, a mom, a grandma -- stand up and challenge the governing powers that be, it empowered them to do the same," Angel said.

El Pueblo won its lawsuit against the county in 1991 and acheived the ulimate victory on in 1993 when the facility general manager walked up to MaryLou's door and informed her that the company had rescinded its proposal to build the incinerator.

"It's over," MaryLou remembers him saying.

"We've never been in this for money," she said. "We just wanted a clean community for our children and grandchildren."

El Pueblo's first struggle against the waste company made history because, through grassroots organizing, protesting, rallies, lawsuits and challenges at public hearings, the group of mostly Latino farmworkers won the fight against Waste Management, which today is the owner and operator of the largest network of landfills in the industry.

"This small community, this oppressed community, was standing up and fighting the largest toxic waste company in the world," Angel said. "It was the ultimate David-versus-Goliath fight."

Maricela Mares-Alatorre never planned to get involved in Kettleman City's environmental justice movement.

She was studying at California State University, Stanislaus, throughout much of the incinerator fight. She later earned a degree in linguistics from California State University, Fresno.

She returned to Kettleman City in 1994 to raise her son near her parents. At that time, she said, she naively believed the fight against Waste Management was over.

"I figured we beat the incinerator," said Maricela, who teaches General Educational Development courses to farmworkers. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have my own fight."

But her fight began in the mid-1990s, when Waste Management applied for a permit to layer municipal and toxic waste at its facility.

As part of the proposal process, the company submitted an environmental impact report, but, as Maricela tells it, the report was incorrect. The report said the Kettleman City community ended on the west side of State Route 41 and, in fact, she said, the community extends along both sides of the highway.

Kettleman City residents sued and eventually agreed to a settlement in 1997.

As part of the settlement, Waste Management gave the community $75,000 in seed money to create the Kettleman City Foundation, which sought grants to support the construction of the Kettleman City community center.

The center, completed in 2004, acts as a gathering space where residents also can receive health, educational and children's services.

The community continues to receive a monetary portion of every tonnage of municipal and toxic waste that is deposited at Kettleman Hills, because of the settlement. The money also goes toward the Kettleman City Foundation.

"That's how I think I put my mark on the movement," said Maricela, who sits on the foundation board.

She also is at the center of the community's current challenge.

At press conferences and rallies, Maricela has taken the microphone and called upon the county to postpone the permitting processes for polluting industries in the area until an independent health investigation has determined the cause and extent of the birth defects in the community.

She said she is committed to the current fight, but she thinks her son and his peers will be the ones who leave their mark on the latest chapter of the community's environmental justice movement.

"It's going to end with people my son's age," she said. "They're going to be the ones that have children in this place, and they're the ones that have to get out there and move people.

"I think that they'll continue to fight," she said. "It's really a justice fight. When you're fighting for something that you think is unjust, you can't just turn your back on it and walk away."

Miguel Alatorre is a sophomore at Lemoore Middle College High School who enjoys playing the guitar and fooling around with electronics, especially his new iPhone.

But for much of his childhood, he dedicated his time not to his hobbies but to his community's environmental justice movement.

For many years, he accompanied his mother to meetings, and since he was 11, he has been active in a youth environmental group, Kids Protecting Our Planet.

Miguel and other teens in the group do the movement's "dirty work," as he called it. They inform residents about meetings, attend meetings and speak out during the meetings.

"I was only 10, and I knew that [(the proposed dump expansion)] was wrong," Miguel said. "Our city shouldn't be dumped on."

Miguel hopes to attend the University of California -- at Berkeley or Los Angeles -- and would like to become either an environmental lawyer or a divorce lawyer, as he told his family one recent evening.

"Do you want to be rich or do you want to save the planet?" his mother responded.

Miguel agreed that he does want to be an environmental lawyer, so he can assist other communities that have "their own version of a Chem Waste."

Angel, of Greenaction, said he wishes Miguel could spend more time being a kid and less time at meetings. But, Angel said, one of the few upsides of the community's decades-long environmental justice fight is that it has shaped Miguel into an educated and passionate teenager.

"In the long run, Kettleman City will be a better place, and he will continue to grow as an amazing young man," Angel said.

Through the current struggle, he said, Waste Management officials "are creating an informed, inspired leader for justice for our society."

MaryLou is frustrated that after more than 20 years, Kettleman City residents are still fighting to protect their community. But her family's involvement in the environmental justice movement makes her feel like a proud mother and grandmother.

"I've had a very good life," she said. "And if I were to die tomorrow, I'd be happy with what I'm leaving: good people who are going to go on helping other people."

This is the first in series of stories on Kettleman City's environmental justice movement. The series was produced with the support of a health and environmental health reporting grant from New America Media.

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