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Reservation's toxic dumps a multilayered nightmare

June 02, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

THERMAL — A grim-faced George AuClair Jr. wandered his 25-acre patch of desert looking every inch the broken man.

"I'm ashamed of what happened here, but you can't lie about it," said the Torres Martinez tribal member. "You have to own up when you do wrong."

Not far away, bulldozers piled up mountains of junk from AuClair's illegal dump, a dump so toxic it has been declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. He now faces millions of dollars in fines.

AuClair's site isn't unusual. Illegal dumps are spread across the Torres Martinez reservation like ugly wounds, making it the most polluted tribal land in California, Nevada and Arizona. Vast swaths of desert have been transformed into toxic trash heaps threatening the tribe and nearby communities. There are at least 26 illegal dumps here, including the largest one in the state. Federal officials struggle to shut them down, but new ones pop up all the time.

"I would say this is in its own league," said Clancy Tenley, EPA's tribal program manager. "I don't know of any place that has this level of pollution."

Unlike the nearby Agua Caliente, Morongo and Cabazon tribes, the Torres Martinez are poor. They don't have luxury hotels, spas or, until recently, even a casino.

But they do have land: 24,000 acres of it stretching from Riverside to Imperial counties, and even under the Salton Sea. And as development in the Coachella Valley has exploded, some tribal members have cashed in by offering land to those looking to cut corners on waste disposal costs.

Golf course trimmings from clubs throughout the Coachella Valley have arrived in unmarked trucks, and drums of oil, car batteries and sewage also wind up there. Even waste from nearby cities found its way onto the reservation via unscrupulous contractors. And when the pile gets high enough, it's often just burned.

The result, federal officials say, has been widespread contamination along with toxic smoke drifting over cities, schools and farms across the Coachella Valley.

"We find new dumps on a regular basis," said Ray Paiz, battalion chief for the Riverside County Fire Department in Coachella. "What has occurred out there is not only wrong, but it's a shameful criminal act."

So far AuClair, 50, is the only owner expressing any shame.

His site had it all. Fires routinely sent poisons into the air; more than 34,000 square feet of arsenic and chromium ash littered the place. Transients also lived there; drug abuse was rife, and there was at least one killing, say police and the EPA.

AuClair's biggest mistake was burning thousands of toxic wooden grape stakes.

"How could we have known grape stakes were treated with arsenic and chromium?" he asked. "There was no sign saying, 'This is hazardous to your health.' "

And he insists his own health wasn't damaged.

"I lost my hair, but I think that was a thyroid problem," he said, "and I get headaches, but that could be anything."

Still, the site is small compared with other illegal dumps on the reservation.

A few miles away, looming up from the desert floor is a plateau 40 feet high, 300 feet wide and nearly 1,000 feet long, composed almost entirely of human excrement. It's been dubbed Mt. San Diego because of where the sewage originated.

A mile or so from that is the towering Lawson dump, the biggest in California. The 40-acre site has mountains of debris 50 feet high and a million tons of buried waste. Subterranean fires smolder endlessly, occasionally flaring up through cracks. Since a federal judge shut it down last year, there have been more than 20 fires injuring nine firefighters.

"It's the largest dump I have seen in my career, and I have been doing this since 1986," said Scott Walker of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. "Nothing else compares."

School nurses in the Coachella Valley have reported high levels of asthma, bronchitis and skin rashes among local students that they attribute to smoke from dump fires, especially the Lawson facility.

In response, Loma Linda University recently sent a team of researchers to survey the pupils and will issue a report before the school year is out.

"We think the community health has been impacted, and we want the schools to know, we want the families to know and we want the tribe to know," said Rick Alvarez, assistant superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District.

Despite flagrant violations of federal law, it's only in the last year that the dumps faced serious enforcement action.

"Over the years the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the EPA tried different things to combat this problem, but it wasn't until we all began to work together that things got done," said Tenley, the EPA manager. "There has been a radical transformation, especially in the last 12 months. Ten dumps have been closed."

Before that, layers of bureaucracy, tribal politics and intimidation allowed operators almost free rein on the reservation.

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