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Owner of illegal dump is fined

Federal judge orders the $46.9-million cleanup of site in Coachella Valley that closed after the EPA found toxic materials.

March 23, 2007|David Kelly | Times Staff Writer

A federal judge in Riverside on Thursday fined the owner of a notorious illegal dump and ordered him to pay $46.9 million to clean up the site, which officials say represents a serious threat to the residents and environment of the Coachella Valley.

The 40-acre dump in Thermal, owned by Kim Lawson, was closed in August after the Environmental Protection Agency found arsenic, asbestos, dioxin, PCBs and other toxic materials as a result of burning such items as paint cans and wood treated with hazardous chemicals.

It is the biggest dump on the sprawling Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians reservation near the Salton Sea.

"There is over a million tons of buried waste at Lawson's," said Scott Walker of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. "If the combustibles on the surface ignite, it could cause a huge fire. It is one of the most challenging sites in the state."

There have been 20 fires at the dump since U.S. District Judge Stephen Larson ordered it closed. Most resulted from spontaneous combustion, but others are considered suspicious, fire officials said.

Larson also fined Lawson and co-defendants Torlaw Realty Inc. $2.36 million in civil penalties and ordered them to pay $1.8 million to the Riverside County Fire Department as reimbursement for responding to fires at the site.

Nine firefighters have been injured battling the blazes. Some have complained of increased headaches and stomachaches, possibly because of inhaling toxic smoke, according to the U.S. attorney's office, which joined forces with the EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs four years ago to sue the dump and now wants Lawson to help cover the cost of cleaning it up.

Federal officials say the cleanup could ultimately cost more than $100 million.

The facility sits beside Desert Mobile Home Park, which houses more than 4,000 people, and is within two miles of 5,600 students attending elementary, middle and high schools. A fire at the site last year nearly led to the evacuation of the students.

"There are several illegal dumps operating on the reservation, and this judgment gives the EPA and the Bureau of Indian Affairs another way to convince people to shut them down," said Assistant U.S. Atty. Jonathan Klinck, a prosecutor on the case.

Lawson, a member of the Torres Martinez tribe, declared bankruptcy shortly after his business was closed. Klinck will ask a judge next week to forbid Lawson from passing the multimillion-dollar judgment onto the government.

Neither Lawson nor his attorney could be reached for comment Thursday.

Illegal dumping is a major problem on the vast, sparsely populated Torres Martinez reservation and has led to a high-profile campaign to get tough on violators.

The EPA has shut down 10 of the 20 dump sites on the reservation. Last week, it charged George AuClair with violating federal waste laws by operating an illegal dump.

"This decision today is sending a message that illegal dumping is unacceptable and the U.S. government will pursue you through the courts," said EPA attorney Letitia Moore. "It's going to be a long process to figure out what is there and what can and can't be done with it."

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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