Refreshing news in Kettleman City, and how you can help

UPDATE: Read ‘No more brown water’ here.

If all goes according to plan, construction could begin on a surface water treatment plant in Kettleman City in as little as two years, state officials said last Wednesday night.

Once the treatment plant is completed, residents could begin drinking clean, safe water from the California Aqueduct. The community’s 1,500 residents, 88.8 percent of whom are Latino, currently rely on two old wells that offer water contaminated with naturally occurring benzene and arsenic.

A 2010 state study into Kettleman City’s inexplicable cluster of birth defects — which impacted 11 infants and killed three between 2007 and 2010 — identified the community’s contaminated water as a critical public health concern, though the water was not linked to the defects.

The plan was detailed during a meeting Wednesday night at the Kettleman City Community Center, hosted by State Sen. Michael Rubio. (Click here to read about past proposals regarding Kettleman City drinking water.)

At the end of the meeting, Kettleman City resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre thanked the local and state officials who were involved in the project, as well as the residents and community organizations that spotlighted the dire need for clean water.

“It comes down to the residents in town that were brave enough to speak out and bring attention to problems that we have ongoing in the town,” said Mares-Alatorre, who represents the community’s environmental justice organization, People for Clean Air and Water.

She was thankful for the long-term solution, but said the community also wants a short-term solution to the lack of drinking water.

“I can’t tell you how excited I am to be looking forward to the day when I don’t have to bathe my daughter in Kettleman City water, or brush her teeth in Kettleman City water, so we are grateful for the long-term solution. But we would like a short-term solution as well.”

She announced the community would be holding an early Independence Celebration on Sunday afternoon at 5 p.m. in Kettleman City Park to educate residents about the water issue and to raise funds to get clean water brought to Kettleman City in trucks in the coming weeks.

The celebration will include a local band and a dance contest. The goal is to raise at least $400 to fund a water distribution, through the Community Water Center.

Kettleman City, previously on Harvesting Health:

Remembering the infants of Kettleman City

UPDATE: The story, ‘Kettleman City campaign continues,’ can be found here.

Last night I attended a vigil in commemoration of the three babies who died of birth defects in Kettleman City in recent years.

The vigil was at times spiritual, at times a community bonding event, and at times a press conference. (Read about the press conference in next week’s edition of Vida.)

And at times, the vigil was very emotional.

Toward the end of the night, two members of the youth group Kids Protecting Our Planet presented a slide show of photos of the three infants who passed away, set to emotional Spanish-language music. The slide show captured the very human tragedy that occurred in this farmworker community.

Here are some scenes from the vigil:

From left, Linda MacKay, of the Tri-County Watchdogs, Valerie Gorospe, of the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment, and Lupe Martínez, also of CRPE, show their support for the people of Kettleman City.

Magdalena Romero (left) and María Saucedo (right) release doves in honor of their babies who were born with birth defects and later died. Each of them wear T-shirts in honor of their deceased infants. María’s reads: Madre en la lucha/mother in the struggle.

Daría Hernández plays with her 2-year-old son, Ivan Rodríguez, and allows him to blow out – over and over – the candle lit as part of the vigil. Daría is wearing a T-shirt featuring a picture of Ivan, who was born with birth defects. He has had two surgeries and - except for a small scar near his upper lip – is now perfect.

  • Read more about the vigil in next week’s edition of Vida. Click here to read past blogs about Kettleman City.

Don’t miss the “25 Stories” exhibit!

UPDATE: Read the Vida en el Valle story,‘River parkway exhibit features Valley’s people,’ here.

Beginning this week and continuing through the end of March, San Joaquín Valley residents will have the opportunity to check out an awesome exhibit at the San Joaquín River Parkway and Conservation Trust.

The exhibit, “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” includes photographs that depict the environmental issues in the region – from poor air quality, to contaminated drinking water, to big ag – and features the courageous women who are fighting to improve the health and environmental health in their communities.

Tracy Perkins, a photographer and graduate student at UC Santa Cruz, is the project director for the exhibit.

In the exhibit, you will see pictures of Teresa DeAnda, an Earlimart resident who was poisoned by pesticide drift, and since then has become a champion for pesticide reform. (She is pictured below.)

You will see pictures of Alejandro Alvarez, of Avenal, below, whose daughter was born with birth defects and later died. The photo of Alvarez is just one of the images capturing the ongoing environmental justice fight in Kettleman City.

You will also see photos of the Valley in all its beauty – when the orchards are in bloom each spring – and all its ugliness – when thick fog practically obscures the view of an ethanol plant.

But I don’t want to give away the whole exhibit.

Rather, I encourage you to visit the River Parkway Trust’s Ranch House to see the exhibit for yourself. The exhibit is sure to bring alive the urgent health issues in the Valley, and the people fighting for change.

  • There will be an artist’s reception this Friday at 5:30 p.m. at the Ranch House. The event is free and open to the public. People can view the exhibit on Saturdays and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Note:  Photo of Alejandro Alvarez by Daniel Cásarez of Vida en el Valle. The rest of the photos above are by Tracy Perkins. Perkins’ photos were originally posted on the Women’s Foundation of California’s website.

People to watch in 2011: The Mothers of Kettleman City

In next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle, we will be featuring the mothers of Kettleman City as people to watch in 2011.

Why?

Because personal tragedies transformed these women into courageous community activists. Eleven babies were born with birth defects between 2007 and March of this year, and three of them have died.

And because by bravely sharing their stories, and putting a compelling face on the local health crisis, the mothers of Kettleman City helped bring media attention — and then government scrutiny — to the tiny, Latino community, which is located in rural Kings County at the intersection of Interstate 5 and State Route 41.

In 2011, the mothers of Kettleman City will continue to search for answers to why their babies were born with birth defects, and why some of those kids died.

“It’s going to be a decisive year for Kettleman City, for the mothers’ quest for justice,” said Bradley Angel, executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

“But also because of the bravery of the Kettleman City moms in speaking out and demanding answers and an end to pollution, the big impact is going to be on what decisions the government agencies actually make about adding more pollution to Kettleman City.”

For now, listen to two of the Kettleman City mothers describe, in their own words, their goals for 2011.

Magdalena Romero’s daughter, América, was born with birth defects and died less than five months later. (En Español)

Lizbeth Canales’ daughter died in her womb at six months gestation.

Read more in next week’s edition of Vida en el Valle.

The top community health stories of 2010

In a previous post, I declared December the time for making resolutions for the New Year.

December is also the time for making lists: gift lists, In/Out lists, and, in this case, lists of the top news of the year.

Below is my list of the top community health stories of the year. (Click here to read the version that ran in the Dec. 29 edition of Vida.)

I’m sure there are more local health issues that should be recognized in this list – so feel free to add your voice in the comments section below!

1. Kettleman City gets attention
Last year, Kettleman City residents were begging for state officials to investigate the rash of birth defects in their majority Latino community of about 1,500 people.

In January, the community’s concerns finally got the attention of state officials, when Gov. Arnold Schwarzengger ordered the state Department of Public Health and state Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the birth defects in the tiny Kings County community.

In November, the state agencies released the results of their investigation, and said there was no common cause for the at least 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and March of this year.

Kettleman City residents and activists hope that is not the end of the state’s investigation into the community’s health crisis.

“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” community member Maricela Mares-Alatorre said. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”

2. Whooping cough hits state’s Latino community hard
This year, there were 7,824 cases of pertussis — or whooping cough — reported between Jan. 1 and Dec. 15. That was the most cases reported in 63 years, according to the California Department of Public Health.

Latinos were hit hardest by the whooping cough epidemic this year. Nine of the 10 infants who died from pertussis were Latino.

There is no conclusive evidence explaining why Latino infants have been particularly hard hit by the pertussis epidemic. But pediatric disease experts suggest that since Latino infants tend to live with large, multi-generational families, they might have more chances to catch the disease from relatives or caretakers.

3. State’s epic budget impasse causes community clinics to struggle
Community health clinics across the San Joaquín Valley struggled to keep their doors open this fall as the governor and state legislature sat at an impasse over the state budget for a record 100 days.

The state government did not reimburse clinics for Medi-Cal payments during that gridlock, denying clinics 50 to 80 percent of their revenues. During that time, some clinics were forced to chop their operating hours or lay off staff.

“We are the safety net for health,” Harry Foster, president and CEO of Family HealthCare Network, said at that time. “We’re drowning, and no one pays attention to us.”

4. A new face of hunger in the Valley
As the San Joaquin Valley economy withered and unemployment rates remained stagnant, food banks across the region reported providing food to people that never before had needed it.

“The face of hunger has changed,” said Mike Mallory, CEO of the Second Harvest Food Bank, which serves Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties. “It could be a relative, a friend, a co-worker, a next door neighbor – they people that you least expect.”

In response, the Community Food Bank in Fresno held its largest food distribution ever in September.

During the event, about 650 volunteers distributed about 1.275 million pounds of food to residents of Fresno, Kings, and Madera counties.

“This is one day when nobody in the Central Valley should say they’re going without food,” said Dayatra Latin, director of programs and development for the Community Food Bank.

5. White House focuses on childhood obesity
First Lady Michelle Obama cast a national spotlight on the country’s childhood obesity epidemic when she kicked off the ‘Let’s Move’ campaign in February.

But a movement to end childhood obesity began in the San Joaquin Valley long ago.

This year, the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program and other community groups did some awesome work this year to improve access to healthy foods, and create safe places to play, in Valley communities.

For example, parents from John Burroughs Elementary School established a joint-use agreement with the Fresno Unified School District, ensuring the community’s children had a safe place to play after school hours and on the weekends.

What are the emerging health issues for 2011?
I think unincorporated communities – like the Stanislaus County community of Parklawn – are going to be a major news story in 2011.

Organizations like California Rural Legal Assistance and PolicyLink are already doing great work to bring health, infrastructure, and environmental justice to see these small, voiceless communities, and there is definitely more to come.

Clean water could soon flow toward Kettleman City

For years, residents of Kettleman City have lived with many environmental hazards and polluting industries.

The tiny Kings County community is located 3-1/2 miles from a huge hazardous waste landfill. It is located near the intersection of State Route 41 and Interstate 5; has water contaminated with arsenic; and is located near agriculture fields sprayed with pesticides.

A recent state investigation studied these environmental factors, and concluded there was no common cause for 11 babies born with birth defects between 2007 and March 2010. Three of those babies died.

Even though state officials concluded the community’s polluted water did not cause the birth defects, the need for safe, clean, affordable drinking water was one of the main focuses of a recent public meeting in Kettleman City.

“The floor is cleaner than our water,” longtime Kettleman City resident Dolores Moreno told me during the meeting. “I am afraid every time I turn on the tap.” She said she does not drink the water, but does use the water for everyday activities, like cooking beans, washing dishes, and bathing.

But according to a letter from the state Department of Public Health, it looks like residents of Kettleman City might be on their way to obtaining clean drinking water.

The chief of CDPH’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management considered numerous options for how to improve drinking water in the community. In a Dec. 3 letter, he determined the most cost-effective, affordable, and long-term solution to the problem would be for the Kettleman City Community Services District to drill a new groundwater well, and install treatment for arsenic and benzene.

Through the Safe Drinking Water State Revolving Fund, the state would provide a $3 million grant and a $135,000 loan, assuming Kings County provides the remaining $2.9 million for the project.

The groundwater project would cause the community’s water rates to increase. With state and county funding, residential water rates would increase from about $30.05 per month of $32.39 per month.

That rate hike seems to be one hitch so far. According to the letter, the Safe Drinking Water fund considers an “affordable target consumer rate” to be 1.5 percent of the median household income. (In 1999 dollars, the median household income in Kettleman City was $22,409.) The current water rates are about 1.8 percent of the community’s median household income; with the new water project , rates would increase to 1.94 percent of the median household income.

“While the groundwater project is expected to result in water rates that exceed the target consumer rate, the other alternatives presented would require water rates in excess of two percent of the MHI (or as high as $43 per month.),” wrote Gary Yamamoto, chief of the state’s Division of Drinking Water and Environmental Management.

The project is still in the works, but if everything goes according to plan, the new well could be functioning in about a year, said Kevin Reilly, chief deputy director of Policy and Programs for the state health department.

Pictures of Kettleman City by Daniel Cásarez.

Could bio-monitoring solve the mystery in Kettleman?

On Monday, the state Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Public Health released a draft report of their investigation into the birth defects in Kettleman City between 2007 and March 2010.

Their conclusion: There is no common cause for the birth defects found in 11 babies from this impoverished farmworker community of about 1,500 people. (Read the full story here.)

That news didn’t sit well with Maricela Mares-Alatorre, a community activist with the local organization El Pueblo Para el Aire y Agua Limpio/People for Clean Air and Water.

“I feel that they need to continue the investigation, and it needs to be more thorough,” Mares-Alatorre told me. “They need to find out actually why the birth defects happen, so people can continue to have babies without fear.”

Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, suggests a solution for how state agenices could determine the exact cause of the birth defects in Kettleman City: Bio-monitoring.

In a phone interview, she said the state agencies could test Kettleman City residents’ blood, urine, or mothers’ breast milk to determine what chemicals are in people’s bodies, and then compare their level of chemical exposure to the national average.

It’s a tool that’s proved effective in other cases, she said.

She said bio-monitoring helped solve a devastating childhood cancer cluster mystery in Fallon, Nevada. There, bio-monitoring discovered a link between tungsten and acute lymphocytic leukemia. (Read an excellent story about that case, from the Las Vegas Review-Journal, here.)

“These tools are being used more and more,” said Williams, who grew up in Rosamond, the site of another childhood cancer cluster. “Most of the last clusters investigations have used bio-monitoring to try to identify the exposure.”

“Why wouldn’t you use every available tool that you have to find out what the cause of the problem is?” Williams said. “The investigation would not be complete without doing bio-monitoring.”

Al Lundeen, a spokesman for the California Department of Public Health, said bio-monitoring can be an effective tool in public health investigations. But, he said, the state investigation indicated that Kettleman City families didn’t have enough exposure to chemicals or pesticides to warrant using bio-monitoring.

“Bio-monitoring would really pinpoint a chemical, but our investigation did not find that there appeared to be an exposure to chemicals that could be of a significant level to result in birth defects,” Lundeen said.

“It’s clearly a tool in the toolbox, but it didn’t seem to be a tool that would tell us more than we had already learned.”