Sewage pile, illegal dump on Calif toxic tour list

June 17, 2011 - 4:13 AM
Stinky Town-Tour

FILE - In this file photo taken Wednesday, May 11, 2011, farm fields and the San Bernardino Mountains frame the Western Environmental facility where odors emanating from the facility have allegedly caused residents of the area to become ill in Mecca, Calif. Community activists in Southern California’s Coachella Valley have been toiling to spread the word about the abandoned waste dumps, shoddy migrant housing and overburdened recycling facilities. Their work paid off last month, when the government regulators cracked down on a soil recycling plant blamed for a putrid stench that sickened dozens of children. Now, the groups are pressing for similar action at other toxic sites. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)

THERMAL, Calif. (AP) — Community activists in Southern California's Coachella Valley have been toiling for years along the eastern rim of this crescent-shaped breadbasket to spread the word about the abandoned waste dumps, shoddy migrant housing and overburdened recycling facilities that are a fact of life in this poor, farmworker community.

Their work paid off last month, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators cracked down on a soil recycling plant that was blamed by air quality officials for a putrid stench that sickened dozens of children and teachers at a nearby school.

Now, the groups are taking advantage of that national spotlight — including a visit from U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer — to press for similar action at other toxic sites that dot the remote valley, from an abandoned and illegal dump to a mountain of human sewage that locals dubbed Mt. San Diego because it was trucked in from San Diego County.

Activists will take state lawmakers and state and federal regulatory officials on an "environmental justice" bus tour Friday with stops at a laundry list of sites that represent potential environmental hazards. It's the second such tour the group has organized this year since forming an environmental task force that includes officials from all levels of government, with the goal of improving living conditions in the sun-baked Coachella Valley.

The tour on Friday precedes a state legislative committee hearing on environmental safety and toxins that will be held at the local high school here.

The federal crackdown on soil recycler Western Environmental, Inc., which sits on tribal land, was the first major success after a coalition of civil rights and migrant advocacy groups began using an evolving strategy, said Megan Beaman, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc. The group used to try to make its point by filing lawsuits against major polluters or negligent landlords but recently realized that's not enough, she said.

"We need a lot more people at the table and a lot more resources," she said. "We are looking at this as an opportunity to create a model of enforcement ... that will carry on to other places in our community and around the state."

The valley roughly 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles is well-known for the glitzier cities such as Palm Springs and Palm Desert that sit on its western edge, but dusty towns to the east like Mecca, Thermal and Indio skirt the northern tip of the Salton Sea and seem a world away from the fairways and swimming pools of their neighbors. Farmworkers, many of them migrants, toil in the agricultural fields that define this heavily irrigated region and come home to dangerously overcrowded trailer parks with limited septic systems and jerry-rigged electrical systems.

Recycling plants, dumps and other businesses unwelcome in more metropolitan areas set up shop years ago in the eastern valley and continue to present health hazards.

In March, the newly formed environmental task force ramped up an online site where residents can log in and document environmental hazards in their community, including unexplained fumes and pollution, said Beaman, whose group is one of the main organizations working in the valley.

Both the so-called "toxic tours" and the online site are ideas borrowed from the nearby Imperial Valley, where poor and mostly migrant residents deal with similar issues, she said. The online log of residents' complaints has been used there to identify safety issues previously unknown to regulators, organizers say, and they hope it will have the same effect in the Coachella Valley.

Darryl Adams, the interim superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District, moved to the region a year ago and took the first bus tour that activists offered earlier this year. He signed up after students at one of his elementary schools in Mecca were sickened by fumes that were later traced to Western Environmental, whose facilities are visible from the school's playground.

Adams said he was stunned by the things he saw on the tour, especially the living conditions in the migrant encampments.

"I could not believe what I saw and ever since that day it's been my purpose in life ... to eventually do something about those living conditions," he said. "Why is the eastern Coachella Valley being seen as a dump site or a recycling place when you have people in homes and the agricultural industry out here? Why isn't something being done out here?'"

The EPA issued an order last month that temporarily shut down Western Environmental after dozens of children at the school got sick from a "rotten egg" smell that had drifted across the community on and off for months. The order temporarily bans Western from accepting new shipments of soil contaminated with petroleum and other hazardous substances and instructed the company to reduce and cover 40-foot-tall piles of dirt that lined the property it leases from the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Western, which has taken steps to address the order, has challenged the findings of regulators who traced the stench to its operations. It is working with regulators to reopen.

It was to be one of about a half-dozen sites visited by the environmental tour planned by community activists.

Other likely stops include a tire recycling facility where a fire broke out last month; the human sewage pile; an abandoned dump on land owned by the Torres Martinez Band of Mission Indians and a migrant housing camp.