Saul Martinez Elementary School students listen at a press conference… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)
State regulators found inadequate environmental safeguards at a Coachella Valley soil recycling company blamed for noxious odors that sickened children at a nearby school but said the mountains of contaminated soil do not pose a serious health threat.
Western Environmental Inc., which operates a waste facility on the reservation of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians near Mecca, did not meet California hazardous waste standards "in a number of significant areas,'' according to a state Department of Toxic Substances Control report released last week.
The liner beneath the facility and groundwater monitoring wells at the site were inadequate to prevent or detect leaching contaminants, the report concluded. The company also fell short in screening the hazardous waste trucked onto the site and in testing the treated material, according to the report.
"This facility has significant shortcomings," said agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe. "Before we allow it to accept California hazardous waste, there are significant steps it would have to take." The state has not allowed hazardous material to be hauled there for the past year.
Soil samples taken in December showed elevated levels of hazardous materials, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, but not at high enough levels to pose a health risk, the report stated.
In December 2010, a burning stench enveloped nearby Saul Martinez Elementary School in Mecca, sending two teachers to the hospital, sickening children and forcing a classroom lockdown.
Air regulators subsequently determined that the odors probably came from an open-air separation pond and mounds of soy whey, which were ordered removed.
A spokeswoman for Western Environmental said the state report showed that neither the soil nor emissions from the site created a threat to public health.
"What the community wants to know is: Is the dirt clean, is it safe? The study shows it is,'' said Nancy Conrad.
State officials, however, noted that wells on the site, in place to detect contamination in the aquifer, were found to be dry.
Residents also remained skeptical.
"We feel the matter still has not been resolved," said Maria Machuca, a member of the Mecca Community Council. "We still get funky smells.''