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Noxious odor plagues poor desert communities

The source is a Coachella Valley soil-recycling plant on tribal land, regulators say. Operators defend their enterprise, but agencies have cracked down.

May 15, 2011|By Phil Willon, Los Angeles Times
  • Im afraid to let my children play outside some days, says Liria Vargas, with son Vicente, citing piercing headaches and upset stomachs theyve had. But its not just the kids.... Everyone is affected by the smell.
Im afraid to let my children play outside some days, says Liria Vargas, with… (Irfan Khan, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Mecca, Calif. — The burning stench first enveloped Saul Martinez Elementary School in December, sending two teachers to the hospital and forcing a classroom lockdown as firefighters searched the grounds for the source of the noxious odor.

Liria Vargas was in tears, unable to get to her 8-year-old daughter — and herself nauseated from what she thought was an invisible cloud of poisonous gas. The mysterious odor came and went for months and, every time, her four young children complained of piercing headaches, upset stomachs and raw throats.

"I'm afraid to let my children play outside some days," said Vargas, cradling her 1-year-old son in her living room. "It's not just the kids. It's everyone in this community. Everyone is affected by the smell."

The culprit, according to environmental regulators, is a soil-recycling plant two miles north, a 40-acre operation on reservation land owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. Four-story-high mountains of contaminated soil loaded with heavy metals and leached petroleum rise from the sun-baked earth, some shipped from polluted school sites in Los Angeles.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week ordered the company that runs the plant, Western Environmental Inc., to cease accepting hazardous materials — in effect shutting most of the operation down. State environmental regulators ordered trucking companies to stop hauling hazardous waste to the site, and for a few hours last Monday regulators had the California Highway Patrol inspect trucks pulling into the facility.

On Friday, the Southern California Air Quality Management District, which has received 215 odor complaints in the area since December, cited Western Environmental for discharging harmful air pollutants and will seek civil penalties.

The government response was at the speed of light compared with what residents are used to seeing in this desolate and impoverished area of the Coachella Valley, a vast expanse of farmland and scores of trailer parks filled mostly with farmworkers and recent immigrants.

Massive illegal dumpsites and dilapidated shantytowns have dotted the valley for decades, mostly on patchwork reservation land, sovereign Indian property beyond the reach of state and local laws.

Within sight of three schools in the immigrant haven of Thermal, on reservation land owned by the Torres Martinez Band of Mission Indians, is a plateau of human excrement that was 40 feet high at its peak. Called "Mount San Diego" for where the sewage originated, the operation was shut down by federal order in the 1990s, yet mounds remain.

A mile or so away is the towering Lawson Dump, the biggest illegal dumpsite in California, also on reservation land. A federal judge ordered the dump closed in 2006 and also seized control of the neighboring slum town known as Duroville, owned by Torres Martinez tribal member Harvey Duro — 40 acres of mostly dilapidated mobile homes and home to as many as 5,000 farmworkers.

"The east valley has been sort of blighted by environmental and housing crisis for such a long period of time … and, while there has been progress lately, we still have a long way to go," said Megan Beaman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.'s migrant farmworker program in the city of Coachella. "People would not live in those areas if they had any other choice."

Officials with Western Environmental said the company had been unfairly tainted by the area's notorious history. Matt Mullen, head of compliance quality control, said the facility accepts only waste that is below federal limits on toxic materials and that once it is treated, all the material is safer than state standards require. Mullen said that despite claims by state environmental officials, the facility has a permit to operate, which is issued by the tribe and meets all EPA guidelines.

An investigation by the AQMD determined that the likely cause of the odors were an open-air oil-separation pond on the site and mounds of soy whey — a common byproduct of tofu — that were trucked to the facility.

Under orders from Cabazon tribal leaders, the company already stopped accepting the soy whey and removed what was on site. The oil pond was drained and the liquid placed in temporary storage tanks.

"We're doing everything they asked us to do," Mullen said.

Cabazon Tribal Chairman David Roosevelt said the tribe also has allowed federal and state regulators free access to the facility to conduct all the testing and monitoring they've requested. While the tribe adheres to all federal environmental regulations, however, it has been reluctant to seek state environmental permits because of a possible "unforeseen impact on tribal sovereignty in the long term," he said.

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