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Rural communities can face significant issues with pollution due to factors beyond their control. One example is Kettleman City, California. Its population today is only 1,200 people, most of them people of color; in the 1970s, the location was designated by county and state authorities as a Class I hazardous waste landfill—one of only two in operation today in California. Clare Cannon, an associate professor of human ecology at the University of California, Davis, talked with Harvard Public Health about her case study on Kettleman City and a new way to help fight environmental harms.

Why study this topic?

In 2016, the state of California agreed to review whether renewing the landfill permit in Kettleman City would violate the people’s civil rights. We already know it’s harmful when local governments place sources of contaminants in or near a community. I wanted to apply a critical environmental justice framework to find out what policy infrastructure continues this harm.

What did you find?

In the 1970s, the public notice for the landfill opening met legal requirements but was not translated to Spanish, which is spoken by many residents. People didn’t find out about hazardous waste until years later, when the media reported the owner getting fined for violations. We can recognize historic inequities that marginalized the community in the first place.

The frame I used reverses public perceptions. The public looks on these communities as indispensable instead of disposable. Kettleman City does California the service, for lack of a better word, of hosting this landfill. Waste has to go somewhere, but we don’t dump it in Beverly Hills.

Marginalized communities are crucial to helping us research toxic exposures. They are taking on this harm, really for the benefit of the rest of us in society. So we must consider whether this is really fair since most communities like Kettleman City did not agree to this in the first place.

What would you like to see happen based on your study’s findings?

We have to think about where toxic waste goes and who it impacts. Then we have to work with the people affected to craft policies and interventions that redress the historical and contemporary environmental injustice they experience. Public health is a robust framework for engaging and solving these social problems.  I would push public health to embrace that even more.

—Leah Samuel

(Study in Toxics, April 2024)

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