Maricela Mares Alatorre says she has a “hate-hate” relationship with Kettleman City’s water, which contains unsafe amounts of naturally occurring arsenic.
“Usually, very early in the morning or late at night, there’s like a petroleum smell, like gas,” Alatorre says. “Sometimes during the day, while we’re washing the dishes, we’ll have a white dish, and all of a sudden, we’ll see the water is totally brown.”
Mares Alatorre is the leader of a community group called People for Clean Air and Water that has spent decades fighting for health and environmental justice in Kettleman City. In recent years, they’ve focused on halting the planned expansion of the nearby hazardous waste landfill, which is already the largest in the western U.S. The battle became a national story around 2009, when a cluster of birth defects was discovered in the town.
A 2010 state investigation eventually ruled out possible causes for the birth defects: It wasn’t the contaminated groundwater, and it wasn’t the dump at the Kettleman Hills Facility. In fact, the report found no common cause for the children’s health problems.
But Mares Alatorre questions that conclusion.
“What’s killing the babies of Kettleman City?” she wonders, as she reads aloud a sign in her backyard that’s left over from and Earth Day event. “We still don’t know. Is it the water? Could be. Is it Chem Waste? Could be. Is it a combination of everything? Maybe, we just don’t know.”
Those health concerns delayed the landfill’s plans for growth. But this summer, the state issued a draft permit approving the 14-acre expansion.
So here’s the dilemma that Mares Alatorre and others are now facing:
If the landfill is approved, its owner, Waste Management, has agreed to pay more than $500,000 to cover the debt on the town’s current water system. That alone wouldn’t bring the residents of this poor, farmworker community clean water. But it would help them move forward with a plan to get more costly, treated water from the California Aqueduct.
The situation has left Mares Alatorre feeling like she’s between a rock and a hard place.
“It’s a very difficult situation because naturally everyone wants clean water,” she explains. “I’d love to bathe my daughter in clean water, and have her brush her teeth with clean water, but what we’re giving up in return is equally dangerous, we feel.”
This sort of conflict is not unique to Kettleman City, says Manuel Pastor, director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at USC. He says it’s common for industrial facilities to invest in nearby schools, or parks, or job creation.
This situation stands out, though, because Kettleman City has had a high-profile, and controversial, relationship with the landfill for so long.
“The other thing that’s complicating is the way in which Waste Management is proposing to ameliorate some of its impact is in another aspect of the environment, and so it makes it even clearer, rubbing a little more salt in what the community might perceive as an environmental justice wound,” Pastor says.
Cecilio Barrera, the facility’s community relations manager, gives me a tour of the hazardous waste landfill on a smoggy November day. He explains that the 50-some-acre landfill looks like a mountain, but underneath it is a protective layer, made of a combination of soils and gravel.
“So in a landfill you have this 9-foot layer, and after that you can start putting in your trash, or in this case, hazardous waste,” he explains.
Waste Management has been committed to preserving the environment - and contributing to the nearby community - for three decades, says Lily Quiroa, the company’s public affairs manager. That support has only waned in recent years, as the community’s health concerns stalled the expansion permit, the landfill began reaching capacity, and the company had to lay off 70 employees, she says.
“We’ve helped this community above and beyond whatever we’re told to do, per permit requirements,” she says. “Besides the water, we’re here also in support of Kettleman City Elementary School. In good times, when we actually had a business, we contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in this community.”
So is paying off the debt on the water system another act of good will? Actually, it’s more complicated.
In 2009, as part of the permitting process, a local committee developed a list of things the company should do to protect health and safety in the county, and make up for the impacts of operating a heavy industrial facility in the community.
Quiroa says the company agreed to a list of concessions - including the water system payment - because it’s the right thing to do, not because they intended to buy support.
“This is not about buying a community; this is about doing things correctly,” she says. “That’s what the company stands for.”
But Mares Alatorre is skeptical.
“I know Chem Waste likes to frame it as they’re being good neighbors, but the truth is that they’re buying good will,” she says. “If you give me a choice between my good will and the health of the community, the health of my family, I’m going to choose the health of my family.”
Here’s what could happen next: The plan is for the community to transition from contaminated groundwater, to treated surface water from the Aqueduct. In order for that to happen, residents must first agree to new water rates. If the landfill is approved, and the company pays off the debt on the water system, residents’ water rates might not be so high.
Once that rate is determined, the state’s Department of Public Health will designate about $8 million toward a new water treatment facility. It’s expected to be constructed by early 2016.
Mares Alatorre thinks there are other ways to get clean water, that don’t involve Waste Management.
“We know the water has to be fixed, it’s an important thing for our residents – but I also see other communities have significant water issues like nitrates, and arsenic, and they’re getting solutions, and they’re not agreeing to the expansion of a giant toxic waste dump in their backyard,” she says. “Other communities have had some successes, so why does Kettleman City have to pay so dearly for clean water?”
A Department of Toxic Substances Control spokesperson says the agency is aiming to make a final decision on the expansion next month.