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Clearing The Air In Mecca

Western Environmental, Inc's Mecca facility, shuttered by the EPA this week | photo by Chris Clarke
Western Environmental, Inc's Mecca facility, shuttered by the EPA this week | photo by Chris Clarke

The EPA has taken action to close a Mecca, CA waste processing facility after months of complaints from neighbors that the facility has emitted foul odors, often sickening them. The Mecca facility, operated by Western Environmental, Inc. (WEI) and its owner Waste Reduction Technologies (WRT), accepts contaminated soil, treated sewage sludge, soy whey, and other organic compostables for "remediation and reprocessing."

The facility has been a source of contention in Mecca since December 15 of last year, when students at the nearby Saul Martinez Elementary School were forced to shelter in place by a cloud of unidentified gas coming from the site a mile and a half away. Several students fell ill, and paramedics were summoned on that day and on two subsequent occasions as well. Between December and April more than 200 separate odor complaints were recorded, and inspectors from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) traced the odors to the site on 25 occasions. The offending smells were variously described as resembling rotten eggs, human waste, raw sewage, burnt motor oil, and petroleum. According to Monday's EPA order:

SCAQMD identified various sulfur compounds from the soy whey pond operated by WRT, and elevated levels of non-methane organic compounds (NMOCs), including VOCs [volatile organic chemicals] such as acetone, propane and hexene.

Mecca is a modest agricultural town in the east Coachella Valley, its residents predominantly Latino with a median income below $26,000/year. The WRT facility is cheek-by-jowl with a small residential area, a date processing and packing plant, and small farms growing a variety of produce, including date orchards.

WRT's web site states the facility, in operation for the last seven years, accepts soil contaminated with petroleum hydrocarbons, coal tar, chlorinated hydrocarbons, pesticides and heavy metals. According to the EPA the site has received 165,000 tons of such contaminated soil since January 2009. A large amount of that soil is stockpiled on site in a long series of mounds reaching 40 feet high.

WRT must remove this contaminated soil, according to the EPA | Chris Clarke photo
WRT must remove this contaminated soil, according to the EPA | Chris Clarke photo

As odor complaints mounted, WRT shut down its soy whey pond and a water-oil separation pond on the property after SCAQMD fingered those sites as the source of some of the worst of the emissions. Still, as increasing documentation of the problem by regional and state agencies seemed not to prompt any action to stop the problem, residents' comments wondering over how long it would be before the EPA took action grew more and more anxious. Late last week, US Senator Barbara Boxer -- a resident of Rancho Mirage, 25 miles from the WRT site -- addressed a rather pointed letter to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson asking when the agency would take action on the Mecca facility. "Please let me know in detail what immediate steps the EPA will be taking," Boxer's letter concluded, "because this situation is intolerable." The WRT facility was shut down within two business days. State officials set up a surprise checkpoint at the entrance to the facility on Monday, and any trucks hauling hazardous waste were turned away by the California EPA. Under the terms of the order issued Monday by EPA, Western is forbidden from accepting any more contaminated soil without approval from the agency. The company has 15 days to tarp the at-present uncovered soil mounds, and must eventually remove them.

Many Coachella Valley residents have speculated that the delay in environmental law enforcement stems from jurisdictional issues. The WRT facility is on land belonging to the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. WRT, whose lease of the site was approved by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, has maintained that it doesn't need state permits to operate on Indian land. That issue may be resolved in court. Two weeks ago, at a meeting at Saul Martinez Elementary called by SCAQMD to discuss the air quality issues surrounding WRT, residents appealed directly to Cabazon Tribal Chairman David Roosevelt to close the plant. Roosevelt responded that the tribe had been working with WRT to close the soy whey pond and contain oily wastewater. "Give us time," he told those in attendance, according to the Riverside Press Enterprise. "There has been a rapid response. We are doing what we can as fast as we can."

Toxic waste dumps are no strangers to tribal lands in the Coachella Valley. The Valley's checkerboarded Indian lands, home to modest communities of for the most part working class folks, have long been the prize in the eyes of landfill developers, toxic waste brokers, and other such industrialists whose operations would be less welcome in more affluent communities.

The nearby lands of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla are an especially notorious example. From 1989-1994, at least 200,000 tons of sewage sludge from southern California cities were illegally dumped on the Torres-Martinez reservation, creating a fifty-foot waste pile locals nicknamed "Mount San Diego." Shutdown and subsequent indictment of the sludge dumpers didn't change much. From 1992-2006 an illegal waste dump on Torres-Martinez lands at Pierce Street and Avenue 69 in Thermal repeatedly caught fire, sickening neighbors and firefighters. The "Lawson dump" -- the largest illegal dump in the state of California -- was finally shut down in 2006, and its operators were fined more than $50 million in cleanup costs and punitive damages. At least 26 illegal toxic dumps were known to be in operation on the Torres-Martinez reservation in 2007.

During the 1990s, the Torres-Martinez Tribal Council repeatedly spoke out against the dumping on its lands, most of which was carried out without approval of the BIA. Small tribes like the Torres-Martinez and Cabazon -- the latter with fewer than 50 members at the last counting -- often don't possess the resources to take action when a member agrees to have waste dumped illegally on his or her land, as happened with the Lawson Dump and Mount San Diego. In 2006 the EPA, state agencies and the Torres-Martinez tribal council created the Torres Martinez Solid Waste Collaborative, whose aim was to close and clean up illegal waste dumps on the reservation. With community initiatives such as the Desert Mirage High School- created documentary "The Contaminated Valley," shown below, the Collaborative was able to make some real changes. Within two years the known illegal dump sites had been closed, and the collaborative continued to work to educate locals about the dangers of dumping.

Whether a similar initiative might help protect residents of the Cabazon Band's reservation from future outbreaks of environmental injustice remains to be seen. It took a mass public outcry to get the ball rolling on the Torres-Martinez reservation, and it may take the same for Cabazon.

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