KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. – It was the day the families of this rural farm community had long awaited.
After nearly two years of pleading for someone to listen to their concerns about an abnormally high number of birth defects, families bonded by the suffering of their children got one of the biggest ears in the West on Wednesday.
Jared Blumenfeld, newly appointed regional director of the EPA's Pacific Southwest division, sat as mothers of modest means hugged sons born with cleft palates.
The mothers believe six children were born in the area with defects during an 18-month period because they live three miles downwind from the biggest hazardous waste landfill west of the Mississippi River.
"The medical people tell us we have to have evidence before we can say they are the ones who are to blame," said Daria Hernandez, whose 20-month-old son Ivan has been through two surgeries to repair a cleft palate and needs more treatment.
Blumenfeld has promised to determine what his agency has done to analyze whether the problem is linked to the Chemical Waste Management Inc. landfill, which wants to expand.
Bob Henry, manager of the waste facility, maintains the operation is safe and hopes the government scrutiny will improve lives of the community.
Kettleman City, population 1,500, is a crossroads on Interstate 5, California's main north-south artery. Thousands of diesel trucks pass by every day. The town also is bisected by high-tension power lines and surrounded by the farm fields where many of the residents work in fields sprayed with pesticides and chemical fertilizers.
The mother want to know what is to blame for the problems if not the landfill full of PCBs and pesticides.
"We are asking him to support us because a lot of women are scared," Hernandez said. "We have so many questions."
Blumenfeld met privately with families after a private tour of the waste facility. The families said afterward that Blumenfeld spoke generally about the need for better health monitoring. They called it a victory.
"They made a promise that they would investigate, and I hope they keep the promise," said Magdalena Romero, whose daughter who died of Crone's disease would have been 2 on Tuesday.
Blumenfeld said little about the meetings that his aides had described earlier as a listening session.
"It's an emotional thing to talk about," he said after spending 80 minutes in the home of Maura Alatorre, whose son, Emmannuel was born 2 years ago with a cleft palate. "I learned a lot, and, hopefully, they feel better being able to share."
Afterward he issued a written statement thanking the families for sharing their stories.
"I am deeply moved by their honesty and ability to speak so candidly about their heartbreaking experiences," Blumenfeld said.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has promised that two state agencies would look into the health issue after being hounded for nearly two years by Greenaction, an environmental justice group.
The birth defects became a rallying point last year for residents trying to stop the expansion plans of the waste facility.
Their stories of miscarriages and the photographs they carried of children with facial defects failed to convince the Kings County Board of Supervisors that the company's expansion plans should not go forward.
The families said they would move away from the impoverished community if they could find work in another place where they could afford to live.
"We would be the first to go because my family's health is important to me," said Alatorre, who had to feed her son by squirting formula into his mouth with a syringe because his cleft palate made him unable to suckle when he was born. "Unfortunately we do not have that opportunity."
She said she won't have more children while the questions remain and was hopeful that Blumenfeld's visit marked a turning point.
"I think he's going to support us," she said. "I think he will create a change."