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EPA Exec Meets with Worried Parents in Kettleman City

Vida en el Valle, Rebecca Plevin Posted: Feb 12, 2010

KETTLEMAN CITY -- Magdalena Romero told the new regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency all about her daughter, Amrica, from the moment the baby was born with birth defects until her death about four months later.

During a private meeting at her Kettleman City home last Wednesday, Romero also showed Jared Blumenfeld, the newly appointed EPA Region 9 director, the altar in her home that honors Amrica's short life.

She even showed him pictures of the baby in her casket.

In an unprecedented show of support for the residents of the rural farmworker community, Blumenfeld traveled to Kettleman City last week to meet area mothers whose babies were born with birth defects between September 2007 and November 2008.

Six babies, out of 63 live births, were born with birth defects in less than two years, according to recently updated figures provided by the Kings County health department.

"Today's meeting gave us lots of hope," Romero said in Spanish. "They promised to help us, and I think they are going to keep their promise. I hope they keep their promise."

Blumenfeld has ordered an internal investigation of the EPA's actions regarding Kettleman City, to ensure the agency has done everything in its authority to minimize environmental exposures in the community.

And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has ordered the state Department of Public Health and the state EPA to conduct an investigation into the birth defects, including interviews with affected families, studies of the air, water and soil, and a review of medical records.

News of the official investigations came as a relief to Romero and other residents, who have been begging local and state officials to conduct a comprehensive health study in Kettleman City for more than a year.

"I feel calmer," Romero said. "I feel like a weight within me has been lifted. I feel relieved, because we are going to have answers soon."

During his visit to Kettleman City, Blumenfeld toured Chemical Waste Management's Kettleman Hills facility, about three-and-a-half miles from the community.

Residents suspect the community's health problems could be attributed, in part, to operations at the facility, which is home to the largest hazardous-waste landfill in the state.

The county Board of Supervisors in late December approved a proposal to expand thelandfill.

Blumenfeld then visited two Kettleman City homes and met with the mothers who gave birth to babies with birth defects, as well as with other residents involved in the community's environmental-justice movement.

"I am deeply moved by their honesty and ability to speak so candidly about their heartbreaking experiences," Blumenfeld said in a news release after his visit. "In consideration of their privacy, I will not share the details of those stories, but I will say that I have a better understanding of the issues that confront the residents of Kettleman City."

After meeting with Blumenfeld at her home and telling him about her son, Emmanuel, who was born with birth defects, Maura Alatorre said she felt confident that Kettleman City residents' pleas are finally being heard.

"He told us that he has many places to visit, but he still placed a priority on Kettleman City," Alatorre said in Spanish, after the press conference.

Alatorre said she was impressed by what she considered Blumenfeld's sincere manner during the meetings.

"He listened to everybody with lots of patience," she said. "He behaved in an incredible manner. He is somebody I admire very much."

Lizbeth Canales said she heard Blumenfeld's promises, and she now wants to see the EPA take action.

"I want action, not just words," said Canales, who was six months pregnant when her baby died in her womb in summer 2009.

She said her baby would have been born with heart problems and a badly formed head, hands and feet, making it the seventh baby born with birth defects in the community.

Canales' miscarriage occurred outside the 14-month window between September 2007 and November 2008 when the other babies were born.

"I don't want nobody to go through what I went through, and I hope you guys never do," she said, as she held her 4-year-old son in her arms.

The state public health department was scheduled to report its initial findings at the Kings County Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday morning and at a public meeting that evening.

Related Articles:

Kettleman City Residents Sue Kings County

Family Divided Over Landfill

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