Obama’s record on Western environmental issues

  • Photo illustration, Barack Obama in Death Valley.

    Istock, White house photo office
  • President Barack Obama, looking slightly uncomfortable in a cowboy hat a supporter handed him during a campaign stop in 2007.

    LM Otero, AP
  • Jared Blumenfeld, EPA Region 9 administrator, addresses the crowd at a rally outside EPA headquarters in San Francisco last January that called for environmental justice for Kettleman City and other communities.

    Bradley Angel
  • U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ken Salazar speaks during a public meeting on offshore drilling in April 2009. A year later, the Obama administration would propose increasing offshore drilling just days before the Gulf oil spill.

    Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
  • Desert tortoise pens at the Ivanpah site in the Mojave Desert.

    Bureau of Land Management
  • An artist's rendering of solar panels on the site.

    Brightsource Energy

Page 5

Bradley Angel, an environmental justice advocate in San Francisco, has been Tasered, locked up and even kidnapped in the course of his activism; he has physically as well as figuratively stood in the way of a nuclear waste dump on tribal lands and a hazardous waste facility in Mexico. He used to work for Greenpeace, but left when it became clear to him that the group was more interested in national issues than working in communities. In 1997, he co-founded his own group, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice.

And Angel is so impressed with Lisa Jackson's EPA these days that he has begun to believe that all the hope and change stuff was more than campaign strategy. "Maybe," he says, "maybe the rhetoric of Lisa Jackson and the Obama administration is true."

His cautious optimism comes from the EPA's response to the plight of Kettleman City, a small unincorporated community in south-central California, on the west side of the San Joaquin Valley. The town sits on bleak, dusty, flat land, dotted with small stucco houses surrounded by wrought-iron gates; there are gas stations and an In-and-Out Burger, but not a single supermarket. It is a place most visitors just drive through. The ones who stay, roughly 1,500 of them, work primarily in the Central Valley's agricultural fields. Half live below the poverty line; almost all of them speak Spanish as a first language, and more than half speak no English at all.

Angel first came to Kettleman City in 1987. "He came and knocked on our doors," remembers Maricela Mares-Alatorre, who now runs the environmental justice group People for Clean Air and Water. "He let us know that there was a (hazardous waste) incinerator about to go up in our back yard." Angel enlisted Mares-Alatorre's parents, Mary Lou and Ramón Mares, to mobilize residents; together they sued to halt the incinerator's construction.

Twenty years later, horror stories have started to emerge from Kettleman City about birth defects in newborn babies. Some babies were born with cleft palates, others with partial brains; still others weren't born at all. Between 2007 and 2010, 11 babies born to Kettleman City mothers had major, structural birth defects; three died in the first year of life.

Adjacent to the tiny community sits the West's largest landfill, a place where electronic components go to die. Some of those components contain polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, which disrupt hormones, cause liver damage and may cause birth defects and certain cancers. Many people in the community, including the mothers of the affected babies, suspected that chemicals from the landfill were leaching into their water somehow, or poisoning their air. They wanted the landfill investigated. But it was not investigated. And then the company that operates the landfill, Chemical Waste Management, asked EPA for a permit to expand.

President Reagan's EPA approved the incinerator the Kettleman City residents fought to kill; under Bush, the agency ignored federal law by allowing Chem Waste to operate despite documented non-compliance with reporting requirements. In March 2007, the agency issued a draft PCB permit for the landfill, concluding that it would have no negative impacts on the community, "not even fear or apprehension," Angel says.

Little changed in Kettleman City for a while after that. Chem Waste was still in line for its permit; the environmental report claiming no negative impacts remained on the EPA's website. But then, in early 2010, Lisa Jackson appointed Jared Blumenfeld, the former director of the San Francisco Department of the Environment, as the new administrator of EPA Region 9, a division that covers California, Nevada, the Pacific Islands and Arizona, including 147 tribal nations.

Just after Blumenfeld took his post, Angel and his allies staged a rally at the entrance to EPA's Region 9 headquarters in San Francisco, calling for environmental justice to be served. Angel invited Blumenfeld -- dared him might be more accurate -- to come and speak to the crowd. And "to the dismay of EPA staffers," Angel says, "he agreed." Blumenfeld didn't just show up and speak. He also met with a busload of Kettleman City residents and promised to order an internal investigation into whether EPA had properly enforced the law. The next week, Blumenfeld ordered the permit process to stop until the investigation was complete.

EPA's investigators found that the agency had been negligent in the past, and Angel is watching closely to see what happens next. All the state and local permits Chem Waste needs to expand ride on the EPA's determining whether the landfill has been complying with the Toxic Substances Control Act, a 1976 law governing the release of chemicals into the groundwater, atmosphere or consumer goods. And for the first time in Chem Waste's cozy history with government agencies, the EPA may decide that it has not.

No one knows for sure whether PCBs, and not pesticide drift or diesel particulates, have caused the birth defects. A study released by the California Department of Public Health in November found no common cause for the deformities; in January, a study funded by Chem Waste and designed by the EPA ruled out PCBs as the cause. Last winter, a state public health official named Kevin Reilly told a local meeting that the birth-defect rate may not be higher than normal. Blumenfeld at least rejects that conclusion: "You can see from one end of the town to the other," he says. "Everyone knows each other, and knows what their history has been. And these babies' illnesses and deaths have sent shock waves through the community."

In late November, EPA fined Chem Waste $300,000 for failing to properly dispose of PCBs at its Kettleman Hills landfill. Samples from the landfill's environs revealed PCB levels up to 400 times the regulatory limit. The fine wasn't much; Chem Waste's parent company, Waste Management Inc., posted a fourth-quarter profit of $182 million in 2010. But the very fact that EPA levied the fine validated residents' concerns. "Despite all the unanswered questions," Mares-Alatorre says, "we know this polluter needs to be shut down."

When Obama appointed Jackson     to head the EPA, Ruch and other environmentalists criticized her spotty track record as head of the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection,     a post she held from February 2006 until November 2008. She allowed a daycare center to remain open while the state investigated mercury pollution there; at times New Jersey was so lax in enforcement that Bush's EPA had to intervene. In contrast, Jackson's EPA has been, by every account, a paragon of environmental justice.

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