Birth Defects Plague Tiny California Town

Residents say they were pleased with last week's visits by Environmental Protection Agency Regional Director Jared Blumenfeld. On the job for less than a month, he spoke with each of the mothers, met their children and looked at pictures of those who had died.

"It went very well. It was emotional," Mares-Alatorre said. "He promised the ladies in the community he would do his best."

Blumenfeld declined to be interviewed, but the EPA referred to a statement he issued saying he now had an understanding of the families' concerns. He also toured the Chemical Waste Management facility and said, "They have indicated their support and willingness to work with EPA and the state to address any issues regarding their facility."

Close-Knit Town Devastated by Birth Defects

Kettleman City is a close-knit town. Many residents are related or consider one another close enough to be family. A large portion of the residents are either immigrants or descendants from the same Mexican enclave. Most of the residents do not speak English.

"It's like the Mayberry syndrome. Everybody knows each other," Mares-Alatorre said. "If my kid misbehaves across town, 20 minutes later, I'll know about it."

There is little serious crime, and many of the families attend church regularly. Yet poverty is everywhere and, according to Mares-Alatorre, only 17 percent of the residents have a high school diploma.

The closest town is 37 miles away, and because many people don't have cars, they use a public transport system to get basic supplies that are too expensive in the few convenience stores in town.

Ana Martinez, a community organizer with Greenaction for Health and Justice, which has spearheaded the fight for attention in Kettleman City, told that she first worked on a door-to-door campaign two years ago when they started hearing stories of babies being born with severe deformities.

The next door-to-door campaign will begin, she said, in the next few weeks.

"Some women, they are scared to come out and tell us or embarrassed to tell us they had a miscarriage," she said. "It's something very personal for them."

Al Lundeen, spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said that they were first notified about a possible defect cluster in 2008 and that Kings County health officer Michael MacLean was given the information in January 2009.

The health department has not been out to Kettleman City to speak with the families but have spoken to many of them over the phone, he said.

Some residents are angry, Martinez said, after local health officials told them that the number of babies born with defects wasn't high enough to sound the alarm.

In December, six weeks before Schwarzenegger's call for an investigation, MacLean told the Los Angeles Times that he understood the concern, and that officials would watch for more cases.

"But most of the time, when we are talking about small numbers such as these, they are just random occurrences," he told the Times.

Cole said the issue has become very emotionally and politically charged, partially because of the two decades of tension between Chemical Waste Management and Greenaction, which accuse each other of distorting facts.

"At times, I think, the activists turn this into a fingerpointing and fundraising exercise," Cole said. "That's too bad."

But the mothers said they know something was causing these problems.

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