Kings County is a county in California’s San Joaquin Valley whose population is about sixty-five percent white that mostly lives around the county seat of Hanford. Kettleman City is a little farmworker community of 1,100 residents, where ninety-five percent of them are Latino, located in the southwest side of the county, 32 miles from Hanford.
In 1979, without informing residents of Kettleman City, a toxic dump owned by Chemical Waste Management-the world's largest waste disposal company-was established about three and a half miles from the town. At the site, each day up to 200 twenty-ton trucks filled with chemical wastes like PCBs, benzene, and asbestos pass within four miles of the town center on their way to their final destination, where the toxins are treated, stored or buried.
Citizens of Kettleman realized about the existence of the dump in the 1980s when reading in local newspapers about the fines that Chem Waste had to pay due to several violations of environment laws.
In 1988, a phone call from a Greenpeace organizer alerted the community that Chemical Waste was proposing to build a hazardous waste incinerator near the same location, again without informing or consulting the community. The proposed incinerator would burn up to 108,000 tons of toxic waste every year. The diesel emissions from hundreds of truckloads will add to the combustion of toxic materials in the incinerator. Pesticides and diesel contamination from highways add more pollution to the environment within this community. Reports identified Kettleman city as a cluster of birth defects and infant deaths, pointing to Chem Waste as allegedly one of the potential sources of these anomalies.
In response to these actions, residents of Kettleman City founded EL Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio (People for Clean Air and Water). This group look at the location of the other two toxic waste dumps in California and realized that their characteristics were similar to Kettleman: small, mainly Latino, rural farmworker communities with high levels of poverty. The community also realized how the same dynamic is followed by the company (Chem Waste) in other parts of the country (incinerators always located in locations with predominantly non-white populations).
After trying to participate in the public hearing on the project, ‘El Pueblo’ filled a lawsuit at the Sacramento County Superior Court because of the Planning Commission’s approval. On December 31 1991, the judge ruled that Kings County Environmental Impact Report had not sufficiently analyzed the toxic waste incinerator's impacts on air quality and on agriculture; and, most importantly, that the people of Kettleman City had not been meaningfully included as an active participant in the permitting process. Although Chem Waste appealed the decision, at that time the story of the environmental justice struggle of the residents of Kettleman City had made it across the country. On September 17, 1993, Chem Waste announced it was withdrawing its application to construct the toxic waste incinerator. However, and even after been fined $1.5 million for pollution, the landfill keeps operating and a permit was released (July 2, 2013) allowing Chem Waste to increase the capacity of the hazardous waste landfill. There have been public demonstrations and rallies against this increase in capacity
Kettleman City, Calif. is disproportionately burdened with environmental issues. For years, those living in Kettleman City have been met with discrimination and harassment when protesting against the waste dump and for a safe and healthy city. The harassment Kettleman City residents faced is environmental racism and the deliberate placement of pollution and waste near low-income and minority communities. Made up of mostly Latino farmworkers and immigrants from Mexico, the community has felt the impacts of living next to the largest hazardous dump in the Western United States, as well as severe pesticide pollution, toxic waste from oil fields, sewage sludge, and drinking water containing traces of benzene and arsenic, to name a few. In 1988, when the idea of environmental justice was still gaining traction, Kettleman City, Calif. residents won their three-year fight against using their city as a site for a toxic waste incinerator next to the already existing hazardous waste landfill.
The struggle continued. In 2013 there was a Rally and Action for Healthy Communities & Environmental Justice- “We Are All Kettleman City”, on October 9, Noon in Sacramento to demand Governor Jerry Brown and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control to get out of bed with polluters! Protect People, Not Polluters! No Permits for Repeat Offenders.
The slogans were: Tell USEPA and California EPA: Stop Dumping Hazardous Wastes in Kettleman City! Email the US EPA and the California EPA/Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to demand they deny permits to expand the Chemical Waste Management hazardous waste landfill in Kettleman City due to the chronic violations by the company, the alleged ongoing health crisis including birth defects, miscarriages and childhood cancer, and the racial discrimination in the permit process including denying Spanish-speakers equal opportunity to participate in the process and the use of police dogs and police intimidation in the public hearings. (1).