EPA administrator to visit town with birth-defect cluster


— The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched an internal
investigation into its permitting and oversight in a farming community
in California’s San Joaquin Valley
dominated by a hazardous-waste facility, agricultural pesticide
spraying and truck exhaust that may be contributing to health problems
including severe birth defects.

EPA regional administrator Jared Blumenfeld said “the internal investigation will run concurrently” with an broader
inquiry in which state and local agencies will examine health and
environmental issues facing Kettleman City, an enclave of 1,500 mostly poor, Spanish-speaking farm workers about halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

Many residents there suspect that problems including
a cluster of babies born with facial defects may be connected with a
toxic-waste dump operated by Chemical Waste Management that is the only
such facility in the state permitted to accept carcinogenic PCBs.

The ultimate scope of the ongoing investigations remains to be seen.

Blumenfeld said he plans to travel to Kettleman City
next week in a rare personal visit by an EPA regional administrator
eager to implement the Obama administration’s commitment to
environmental justice. The trip is expected to include a tour of the
waste facility and conversations with parents of babies born with
cleft-palate and cleft-lip conditions. Five babies of 20 live births
over a recent 14-month period exhibited those facial deformities, three
of whom died. Although the cases are a statistically tiny sample, they
have heightened long-standing concern that environmental factors may be
making residents ill.

“My first goal is to listen to the community and find out what its needs are,” Blumenfeld said Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the State Department of Public Health on
Thursday acknowledged that it has not adequately explained its efforts
to resolves concerns of residents, county officials and
environmentalists. Earlier this week, a county health official insisted
that the department had told him that the state had no intention of
conducting a full investigation — an assertion left uncontested at the
time by state officials.

“I don’t think we have done a good job of clarifying what it is we are doing,” said department spokesman Al Lundeen. “Our work is a review of the data, not an epidemiological review.”

The state investigation includes an analysis of statistical information gleaned from the California
birth defects monitoring program, and a regional review of “all medical
records of children born with a suspected birth defect,” Lundeen said.
“The county requested that we do that in August. We are wrapping up
that work, reviewing our findings and preparing to share them with the

“At this point our investigation has not included door-to-door interviews in Kettleman City. If it is appropriate, we will.”

Critics expressed concern that department
investigators appear to be unwilling to walk the streets of the
impoverished city, take blood samples and speak with residents.

“Sitting hundreds of miles away at your desk and
computers is not an investigation, and would never be called that if
this happened to a rich, white community,” community activist Bradley Angel wrote the state agency Wednesday.

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