By Vic Bedoian
Two environmental groups filed a civil rights complaint in April against the California Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Toxic Substances Control. Last May, the state agencies approved expansion of the toxic waste landfill near the Central Valley town of Kettleman City. In response, San Francisco–based Greenaction and a local group, People for Clean Air and Water, based their complaint on the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. The groups claim that state agencies used an environmental impact report by Kings County that discriminated against the largely Latino population of Kettleman City in approving the expansion.
Environmental justice groups statewide have fought for years against expanding the toxic waste dump three miles from Kettleman City operated by Chemical Waste Management Company. It’s already the largest such facility in the western United States. When the state went ahead with the expansion over strenuous objections from the community, it was the last straw for local and state activists. Bradley Angel has led the struggle against expansion for Greenaction, “They relied on blatantly, blatantly Jim Crow–style racism committed by Kings County.”
Angel is referring to a Kings County hearing to consider expanding the toxic waste dump that took place back in 2009. At the hearing, there was a heavy law enforcement presence, including police dogs. The civil rights complaint charges that such action was intended to intimidate local residents attending the event.
The other major allegation centers on the hearing process itself. Although English-speaking employees of the company, who were bused in testify, were given five minutes for comments, Spanish-speaking witnesses were only given two and a half minutes to account for the time for translating their comments into English. When one man complained about the procedure, he was forcibly removed.
The use of the resulting environmental report to justify expanding the dump, Angel says, violated the federal civil rights statute, “Not only did Kings County use racially discriminatory blatant racism in their hearing process to produce the so-called environmental impact report on the dump expansion, even more outrageously if you go to the State of California CalEPA website and Department of Toxins website, you’ll see all this glowing language about justice, environmental health.”
Kettleman City has become a national icon for the environmental justice movement. The quiet, clean and largely Latino agricultural town has been put upon by multiple environmental health hazards. But for longtime resident Maricela Mares Alatorre, it is home, “We live here because we like it. We like the small-town atmosphere, we like knowing all our neighbors and knowing everybody, and we always get asked why don’t we move because we know times are bad or that we have worries about it.”
Although the town has been thrust into the limelight because of its struggle with a spike of birth defects and childhood cancer, it has been ignored by Kings County. No sidewalks have been built, residents have had to use water laced with traces of benzene and arsenic, and nothing has been done to mitigate pesticide use in adjacent fields or air pollution from the two major state transportation routes through town. Alatorre says that’s unfair, “The thing is that agencies are not following the law to protect us in our town, and we’re not doing anything wrong. It should be the agencies that follow the law and are supposed to be in place to protect the people and we get asked all the time why don’t we leave. We’re not doing anything wrong.”
The basis for action against state agencies is in Title 6 of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It prohibits state agencies that use federal funds from discriminating actions based on race, color or national origin. The California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal EPA) and the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) both take federal government money. Angel contends those agencies gave expansion the green light despite the adverse impacts the action would have, “They acknowledged that there would be negative impacts that would be significant, that cannot be lessened, that cannot be mitigated. They also very outrageously relied on the approval of this dump expansion that would take what has been one or two trucks a day up to 400 trucks of toxic waste coming from far and wide right up the street from this little town.”
There was a lot of political pressure to expand the dump because it was nearly full and would soon have to close down. In addition, the state, with its actions, is backtracking on recent progress made toward more equitably treating environmental justice impacts across the state. Alatorre asserts that by extending the life of the toxic waste facility, the state is not heeding its own criteria. “They have this new screening tool, Cal Enviroscreen, which designates Kettleman City in the top 10 percent of all the communities of the state as environmentally vulnerable communities and they are willing to add to that burden by approving more toxic waste to come into this community.”
The Cal EPA and the DTSC declined to be interviewed. However, the DTSC issued the following e-mail statement through its media officer Russ Edmondson, “The department takes its responsibility to comply with all federal and state civil rights laws seriously. We did receive a copy of the complaints and are reviewing them.”
Angel replies that the expansion decision likely came from the top state officer, Governor Jerry Brown, “If they think that they can pretend that they support environmental justice and pretend they care about people’s health and pretend to care about people of color including Kettleman City, who they acknowledge suffer such serious environmental and other negative socioeconomic impacts, they think they can just get away with this, they’ve got another thing coming.”
Greenaction’s Angel declares the civil rights complaint has broader implications than Kettleman City and should be a call to action for environmental justice concerns statewide and nationally.
Vic Bedoian is an independent radio and print journalist working on environmental justice and natural resources issues in the San Joaquin Valley. Contact him at vicbedoian@ gmail.com.