Sewage pile, illegal dump on Calif toxic tour list

Margarita Gamez stood in the baking heat Friday outside the trailer park where she lives with other farmworker families and begged visiting state lawmakers and environmental regulators to do something about the stench and dust from an abandoned dump across the street.

The trailer park was one of five stops on an "environmental justice" tour organized by community activists in Southern California's eastern Coachella Valley as they fight to clean up abandoned waste dumps, shoddy migrant housing and other hazards that are a fact of life in this poor, unincorporated region.

"We've been here for 12 years with this dump next to us and in the morning and in the afternoon we have to suffer through terrible stench," the 68-year-old Gamez said, speaking to about 30 visitors who clustered in the shade of a single tree after arriving by bus. "We're asking you to help us."

Community activists have been toiling for years along the eastern rim of this crescent-shaped breadbasket to spread the word about the environmental hazards. Their work paid off last month, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators cracked down on Western Environmental, Inc., a soil recycling plant that was blamed by air quality officials for a putrid smell that sickened dozens of children at a nearby school.

Western, which is temporarily shut down, says it is not responsible for the bad smell and has hired its own experts to determine its source.

Activists, however, are taking advantage of the national spotlight the incident created to press for similar action at other potentially toxic sites that dot the remote valley.

The tour Friday made stops at two migrant encampments, the dump across from Gamez's home, the soil recycling facility and a mountain of decade-old composted human sewage that's on tribal land a quarter-mile from the local high school.

The so-called "toxic tour" preceded a state legislative committee hearing on environmental safety and toxins held at the same school.

It's the second sightseeing event activists have 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.

On Friday, officials from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state Environmental Protection Agency, the local school district and state Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski, chairman of the legislative committee, braved the nearly 100-degree heat to see the locations first-hand and listen to residents' concerns.

Debbie Raphael, director of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, said the tour drove home the difficulty of addressing a range of environmental hazards from water quality to permitting issues that span county, state, federal and tribal jurisdiction. Three of the sites the group visited sit on patches of tribal land that are surrounded by unincorporated parts of Riverside County.

Thousands of residents, mostly farmworkers, live in around and in between the sites in an estimated 400 trailer parks. About 120 of those parks are unpermitted and some also sit on tribal land, putting them beyond the reach of state and local officials.

"There's the human reaction of imagining myself raising my family in a mobile home where the water looks like it came out of a ditch," Raphael said, referencing arsenic-laced well water at one mobile home park the group visited.

"But what's so interesting about this tour is the variety of sites they showed us because it shows how complicated it is for these families. It's not like there's one responsible party and there's one agency who's in charge of making them whole. It's a complete patchwork."

Raphael said of all the sites visited, her agency can only claim jurisdiction on one, the facility that recycles soil contaminated with petroleum and other substances on land that's just a quarter-mile from the elementary school where children got sick.

The valley roughly 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles is well-known for the glitzier cities such as Palm Springs that sit on its western edge, but dusty and unincorporated towns to the east like Mecca and Thermal skirt the northern tip of the Salton Sea and seem a world away from the fairways and swimming pools of their neighbors.

The eastern part of the valley is 98 percent Hispanic and the majority of residents are farmworkers, many of them migrants.

They work in flat, sun-baked fields in 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 Megan Beaman, an attorney with the California Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., 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.

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 contaminated soil 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.

The facility did not have a license to accept materials deemed hazardous by the state of California and state regulators have launched an independent audit to determine how that fact went undetected for seven years. California has stricter standards than the federal government for what qualifies as hazardous waste.

Western Environmental said in a statement earlier this month that it does not believe its operations were the source of the smell and a company spokeswoman said Friday it stands by the statement. The company has hired two outside experts to study air quality issues at the site and one expert was to speak Friday at the legislative hearing.

Western is working with regulators to reopen and tribal officials are in talks with the state EPA to allow environmental officials on tribal land to learn more about what's at the site, said Ricardo Martinez, the state EPA's deputy secretary for environmental justice and border and tribal affairs.