Lower San Joaquin Valley residents say they live in a toxic soup

01/13/2013 12:00 AM

01/13/2013 8:42 AM

KETTLEMAN CITY – Maria Saucedo cried as she spoke of the two babies she has lost in Kettleman City – one to birth defects and the other in a miscarriage.

There's no proof, but she blames the toxic landscape surrounding her town. She and others who have suffered in Kings County's Kettleman City say they live in a nasty soup of pollution. They make a compelling case.

Just west is the largest hazardous waste landfill this side of the Mississippi River. Electricity buzzes overhead along tall towers at a power plant supplying electricity up and down the state. Pesticide is sprayed in nearby orchards. Diesel smoke wafts from Interstate 5 and Highway 41.

"It's a nightmare," Saucedo told state health authorities last year.

The latest: Treated human sewage from more than 5 million people in Los Angeles County is supposed to be composted on farmland east of town. The first deliveries could start as soon as late summer.

"When somebody flushes a toilet in Los Angeles County, it will end up in Kings County," said Jonathan London of the University of California, Davis, which published a study in late 2011 about health risks in the San Joaquin Valley.

Indeed, the valley may lead the world in farming, but tiny Kettleman City – population 1,439 in the 2010 census – reaps a harvest of pollution, too.

In Tulare County, you'll find America's biggest ammonia-choked dairies, nearly 1 million animals. Along Highway 99 up and down the San Joaquin Valley roll fleets of diesel trucks from distribution centers that have moved into the region. Kern County has become a prime destination for tons of treated human sewage from Los Angeles County, despite having passed a ban on it. Tainted groundwater supplies the homes in many of the area's rural towns. And the valley's notorious air quality triggers more asthma and other lung problems than seen in larger cities.

Scientists can't prove what Maria Saucedo says, but they have enough evidence now to suggest that people living closest to these sources of pollution die younger because of it.

Nearly a third of the San Joaquin Valley's 4 million residents live with increased risk because of surrounding environmental threats, says London and several other researchers.

A fight over L.A.'s sewage is the latest worry for residents.

The sewage from Southern California – valley residents call it "agua negra" or black water – is treated to kill off bacteria, then dried so that only a chunky sludge remains. Such sludge already is trucked over the Grapevine, mostly into Kern from Long Beach, Beverly Hills and other cities. Kern has fought it for the past decade.

Now, a Kings County farm not far from Kettleman City is slated to be the next big depository for sludge, especially if Kern is able to fight off Southern California legal challenges to its ban. But even if the ban is upheld, 17 cities in Los Angeles County would still have the option of sending up to 500,000 tons of sludge per year to be composted at the Kings County farm.

Composting L.A. sludge

Leaders at the sanitation agency of Los Angeles County say they understand valley residents' concerns. That's why they're investing in a $120 million sludge-composting project set to begin soon in Kings County, said the project's supervising engineer, Ajay Malik. It will be state-of-the-art and low profile on the northern shoulder of the Tulare Lake basin.

At the same time, it's a good investment and a sweet deal for the sanitation agency, which bought scrubby farmland for the project. The sludge will be hauled to hard, saline Kings County land that costs a small fraction of what land would cost in Southern California.

They bought 14,500 acres from farmer Ceil Howe, whose sprawling Westlake Farms is about 15 miles from Interstate 5. Howe plans to use the compost to fertilize his cropland and help improve yields.

Malik said the agency are committed to protecting the environment. For instance, the group is spending $9 million on a special fabric to trap ozone-making volatile organic compounds on huge composting piles. The biosolid mixing will be done in a building, not out in the open.

"All the air in the building will be pulled out through a filter to trap volatile organic compounds and odors," he said.

The process will still be cheaper than disposing of the sludge by burying or burning it in Southern California, say experts.

Composting further distills treated sewage, using natural decomposition to kill off what's left of the pathogens, and composted sludge has been part of commercial soil used in home gardens for many years.

Still, many farmers don't use it because they don't want their crops associated with sewage.

Some scientists worry about the composted sludge. They say no amount of treatment will eliminate metals, such as mercury or lead.

There are federal thresholds for the metals, and periodic testing is required. In high doses, the metals can cause kidney disease, hypertension, liver damage and problems with reproduction.

Chemicals from sludge can accumulate in plants, said Chad Kinney, associate professor of chemistry at Colorado State University. Could there be enough accumulation to affect a person?

"The picture is still incomplete," Kinney said. "There has not been a clear, field-based experiment under normal agricultural conditions."

That kind of uncertainty spawned the sludge war in Kern County in which many farmers campaigned for a ban in an effort to protect the reputation of their industry.

That kind of uncertainty in 2006 led Kern County voters to overwhelmingly approve the sludge ban. Los Angeles, Orange County and others immediately sued.

Six years later, the legal action continues, and L.A.'s sludge stream is still going into the county. Even if Kern wins in court, the sludge will still be going to the new facility in nearby Kings County.

Howe, the farmer, said he sees no danger in using the sludge compost. He plans to incorporate it into his soil to grow cotton, wheat, alfalfa, pomegranates and almonds.

"I've got 34,000 acres where I can use the compost. We will be testing the soil and monitoring it carefully," Howe said.

Land, air and water

Asked how she felt about the new sludge project several miles from Kettleman City, resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, 38, answered quickly: "How would you feel? How would you like to have all these toxins around your home and your children? We don't like it any more than you would."

Mares-Alatorre heads El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio, a community activist group. The group sees any possible new source of pollution as a threat. To them, it's another layer of risk on top of the hazardous waste buried less than four miles from town.

In the hazardous waste landfill in Kettleman City, there are pesticides, asbestos and petroleum products.

In 2011, trucks fill with several thousand tons of materials containing a banned chemical called PCB, linked to cancer and birth defects, rumbled into the landfill. PCBs are polychlorinated biphenyls, which are used in electrical transformers and oil additives.

Waste Management Inc., the landfill owner, spends about $700,000 each year testing, inspecting and monitoring.

Still, in 2010, the company was fined more than $300,000 for improper handling of PCBs. Last year, the company was fined $400,000 and ordered to invest $600,000 more in lab equipment replacement and other measures.

All of which validates their fears, say Kettleman City activists. But it still misses the bigger worry, they say.

Nobody is investigating those increasing layers of environmental threat: the hazardous waste, diesel exhaust, pesticides and tainted drinking water. The government enforces tough environmental and monitoring regulations on the air and water, but nobody looks at the entire picture.

Survey led to state probe

Five years ago, environmental activists from Greenaction, based in San Francisco, decided to take a closer look at residents in Kettleman City. The group went door-to-door with a health survey, expecting to find asthma and cancer victims.

Instead, they learned five babies were born with cleft lip or cleft palate over a 15-month period that ended in November 2008. Three of the babies died.

That spawned an investigation by the state Department of Public Health and the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The probe turned up no connections to pollution in the water, air or soil. Also, authorities determined the number of birth defects was not high enough to be considered unusual.

But when state leaders went to Kettleman City last June to give residents an update on monitoring data, they got an angry response. Some residents said the state should have come to the town to talk directly with people, instead of simply analyzing data.

In Spanish, Saucedo said: "You don't understand what it's like to live here. You need to speak with us."

Researcher London at UC Davis agrees. He says the whole life experience of residents should be explored.

"Risk is never just one thing," he said. "The layering of risks is cumulative. You need a holistic view. You need to know about where people work, play and pray."

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