The Dark Tale of Kettleman City

I’ve been following the story of Kettleman City for a long time. The Southern California town has flickered in and out of the news as a result of a wave of congenital disabilities residents believe are associated with a nearby waste management facility, and they’ve fought to have the issue recognised, and to get action from the company involved as well as the state. A renewal of the proposal for expansion of the facility late last year prompted more community activism to lobby against such plans, with the argument that the site as it was clearly presented dangers to the community, and the last thing Kettleman City needed was even more toxic waste coming its way.

Kettleman City is a grim illustration of the ways in which intersectionality work on marginalised populations to create a tangle of injustice that becomes extremely difficult to cope with, in the fact of intense social and political pressures. And it’s also an illustration of how communities can rise up and face down oppressive institutions, to transform themselves from a back page paragraph or two to front page news. This kind of awareness is the only way that communities like Kettleman City can hope to achieve their goals, because their residents alone are devalued, not considered worth listening to.

Residents of Kettleman City repeatedly called for investigations into the unusually high number of babies born with cleft lip and palate as well as other developmental anomalies while the state insisted that nothing unusual was going on. As the state investigated, put under pressure by prominent people like Senator Barbara Boxer, it also concluded that there was nothing wrong with the hazardous waste dump that just happened to be Kettleman City’s largest employer. Everything’s fine, nothing to see here, please move along.

It’s telling that Kettleman City is majority Latino, and it’s a primarily Spanish-speaking community. That, in part, explains why the waste dump is there at all, because toxic waste facilities are very rarely positioned near white communities; locational decisions for facilities like these are based in part on accessibility for deliveries and equipment, but also on community sentiment. Companies like Chemical Waste Management, Inc. are well aware that they will encounter significant opposition if they try to situate facilities in majority white communities, especially if they’re wealthy. Rather than trying to go through that battle, they simply choose locations they believe are less likely to attract opposition, in communities where opponents can’t hope to muster the political and financial power to mount any kind of meaningful protest.

For Kettleman City, like many other low-income communities primarily occupied by people of colour and nonwhite people, the poverty rate also played a role. The community is much poorer than California on average, which would have made it harder to oppose the dump, and also turned the dump into an enticement; it offered an opportunity for jobs, which would have been critical for a lot of residents. Like other companies, Chemical Waste Management, Inc. used jobs as a carrot to appeal to residents, ensuring a smooth process when it came to getting the facility up and running.

And when people started complaining of health problems, the waste management company was quick to attempt to assign blame elsewhere. The state was complicit about that; it recognised a cluster, but utterly failed to determine its origins, even though there was a giant elephant in the room. When a facility that processes toxic waste is located next to a community where children are being born with health conditions, that facility merits careful investigation, as do the components it processes, to determine which, if any, are associated with in vitro exposure and associated health problems.

But this was a community full of people who matter least in the eyes of corporations and state, an essentially disposable workforce of people who often didn’t speak English, lived in poverty, and belonged to a racial minority. The state and Chemical Waste Management, Inc. seemed to feel confident that Kettleman City would go largely unnoticed, just one among a larger pattern of towns across the US where residents struggle with environmental racism and health problems, and never make the news. But something about Kettleman City was different; the sheer number of cases, the push for more media coverage, exposure in the Los Angeles Time, solidarity and lobbying from outside the community.

People began to pay attention, to wonder, to ask questions about what was happening in Kettleman City, and activists within the community started having their voices heard. Suddenly, this wasn’t a case of yet another small, marginalised town that could be quietly shuffled under the carpet without consequences. Kettleman City even started to make national news, and when a proposal to expand emerged again, the media picked it up and discussed it, rather than writing the story off and assuming that Kettleman City was old, finished, done news.

Kettleman City is one place, and the battle there is far from over. What’s perhaps most frustrating and sad about the narrative of Kettleman City is the fact that so few people are aware of how many other Kettleman Cities are out there, how many places stretch across the country filled with toxic waste and pollution, with populations struggling to cope with sometimes complex and costly health conditions. The ‘not in my backyard’ attitude embraced by many middle class white people comes with a corresponding lack of understanding about the fact that it’s going on in someone’s backyard, and that someone is rarely heard from.