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Infant deaths, cleft palates raise concern about toxic landfill in San Joaquin Valley

December 7, 2009 | 11:58 am

A mystery has settled on Kettleman City, a small San Joaquin Valley migrant farming community off Interstate 5 that's halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Me-kettleman-city8 Approximately 20 babies were born in the town during a 14-month period beginning in September 2007. Three of them died; each had been born with a cleft palate and had other health problems. Two others born during that period who survived also have the birth defect.

Some of the community's 1,500 mostly Spanish-speaking residents are blaming the problem on a nearby hazardous waste facility -- the largest landfill of its kind west of Louisiana. They also want the Kings County Board of Supervisors to halt the proposed expansion of Waste Management's landfill pending an investigation into the cleft palate cluster by state and federal regulatory agencies.

But the county, which relies on the landfill for $20 million in annual payroll, purchases, fees and taxes, has refused to request such a probe on the grounds that it is extremely difficult to quantify the relationship between pollution and birth defects. County officials also say the evidence does not support placing blame on the landfill, the only facility in the state licensed to accept carcinogenic PCB's.

Residents will be seeking answers during a special Kings County Board of Supervisors meeting to be held this afternoon in the Hanford Civic Auditorium, about 40 miles east of Kettleman City.

The meeting was called to consider an appeal of the county planning commission's recent approval of the landfill expansion project.

The appeal was filed by environmentalists and residents of the community, which for decades has endured a variety of pesticides and other toxic substances sprayed on surrounding fields and orchards, and tons of chemicals and contaminated soils hauled each day into the landfill.

-- Louis Sahagun in Hanford, Calif.

Photo: Ivan Hernandez, here with his father Ivan Sr., has undergone two surgeries for his cleft palate. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

More photos: A cluster of health problems in a tiny San Joaquin Valley community

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