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Deaths, defects raise fears about California landfill

KETTLEMAN CITY, Calif. — State and federal officials are scrambling to determine what caused the deaths of three children in this central California farming town of about 1,500 that shares a ZIP code with the largest hazardous waste treatment site west of the Mississippi.

Over a 15-month period in 2007 and 2008, six children of mothers from Kettleman City were born with serious birth defects, including cleft palates, deformities and brain damage. Three of those infants subsequently died.

And while health authorities have not placed any blame, the apparent cluster of defects has given new ammunition to environmentalists and local residents who have long been wary of the town's proximity to the Kettleman Hills waste facility, a 1,600-acre landfill that lies in an unincorporated area less than four miles west of here.

Last week, officials from the Environmental Protection Agency toured the landfill and visited with families of the children with birth defects. That action came less than a week after Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger ordered the State Department of Public Health and California's Environmental Protection Agency to look into what he called "an abnormal percentage of birth defects" occurring here.

On Tuesday, the first report from the state is expected to be delivered to the Kings County Board of Supervisors, which recently approved an expansion of the waste facility, owned by Waste Management, the largest recycler and waste-handling company in North America. The company operates hundreds of other landfills nationwide.

Kit Cole, a spokeswoman for the company, said that the Kettleman Hills facility was safe and that a vast majority of the waste handled was run-of-the-mill garbage. Only 60 acres was devoted to the most dangerous material, she said, including hazardous chemicals and byproducts from manufacturing and agriculture, which are stabilized in cement blocks before they are buried.

County health officials said they had been cautious about suggesting any connection between the facility and the birth defects, while also trying to manage the fear and pain of victims and their families.

Dr. Michael MacLean, the public health officer for Kings County, said that drawing conclusions from such a small sample was a challenge. "I understand why people are concerned about it," MacLean said. But, he added, "If I had to bet the farm on it, I think that this is just a statistical anomaly."