FRESNO, Calif. – California health officials said Monday they found no common cause for birth defects plaguing infants in an impoverished San Joaquin Valley farm town where residents are battling plans to expand the largest toxic waste dump in the West.
Eleven cases of cleft palates and other birth abnormalities have been reported since 2007 in Kettleman City, where officials said the rate of birth defects from 2008 to 2009 was higher than what would be expected.
Many community members have blamed the health issues on the landfill and called for more testing of children with abnormalities and their relatives to determine the cause of the problems.
"It's very disheartening, very disappointing," resident Maricela Mares-Alatorre, whose niece's son was born with severe birth defects, said of the state finding. "These moms really do deserve answers. They feel that it is not normal."
Officials interviewed mothers whose children were born with cleft palates and other defects and reviewed their medical histories. They also analyzed air, soil and water samples taken in the community and at the nearby Chemical Waste Management Inc. landfill.
"We're pleased with the results," said Jennifer Andrews, a company spokeswoman. "What's in the report supports decades of monitoring and studies done on our facility, and they all show that it's safe and protective of human health and the environment."
In February, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the California Department of Public Health and the California Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the situation. The draft report was released Monday and will be finalized next month after officials hear public comments.
"We wish there was an explanation for what caused the birth defects experienced by the children we studied," public health director Mark Horton said in a prepared statement. "Our investigation finds that no common health or environmental factor links the cases."
Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Rachel Arrezola said Monday the administration would continue to monitor the area.
"Public health and safety are the governor's top priority, and if concerns come up during public review, then we will look into them," Arrezola said.
The landfill is near the community of 1,500 people along Interstate 5, the main freeway linking Northern and Southern California.
Every day, thousands of diesel trucks pass by Kettleman City on the highway. In addition, the town is bisected by high-tension power lines, and many residents work in nearby fields sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
The expansion permit for the Kettleman Hills dump was approved earlier this year by the county Board of Supervisors, but it needs state and federal approval to proceed, and opponents have filed suit to stop it.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency continues to monitor the dump to ensure regulatory, enforcement and permitting procedures are properly followed.
Nahal Mogharabi, a spokeswoman for the EPA in San Francisco, said agency officials were reviewing the report and could not immediately comment.