By David Kelly
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
August 14, 2007
THERMAL, Calif. -- A team of state and federal inspectors moved through the hot, narrow alleys of two large trailer parks housing thousands of migrant farmworkers Monday after receiving reports of health and safety violations inside.
The parks are on the Torres Martinez reservation, which also houses Desert Mobile Home Park, known as Duroville, which is now being targeted for possible closure.
The parks inspected Monday are not yet in the bad shape of Duroville, federal officials said.
"They will be if they don't make any required repairs," said James Fletcher, Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendent for the Southern California Agency.
The BIA said Oasis Mobile Home Park had been sending sewage into the Salton Sea and Dominguez Park was allegedly pumping wastewater into a neighboring field where it was being used as fertilizer for crops. A third park, which has no name but sits beside Oasis, is also being investigated for water and solid waste disposal problems.
"Our goal is to make sure this is a healthy environment for those living here," said Clancy Tenley, tribal program manager for the Environmental Protection Agency. "We have gotten reports of problems here over the last couple of years, and rather than address them piecemeal we want to inspect the parks at the same time."
There are four major parks on the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian reservation, housing as many as 12,000 people. The parks grew in the late 1990s as a result of a crackdown by Riverside County on illegal trailers going up on county land. Fearing eviction, many fled onto the reservation, where county building and safety standards don't apply.
Oasis park, which houses about 2,000 residents and has been cited for water violations before, is owned by Scott Lawson.
His brother Robin runs the smaller, nameless park beside it that the EPA has also cited for water problems. Neither could be reached for comment.
In the past, though, Scott Lawson has denied providing substandard housing to his low-wage, farmworker tenants. He has complained that Native Americans like himself are not provided with the expertise needed to run such parks and that he offers a critical service to those who can't afford the high cost of housing in the Coachella Valley.
Metal fences surround scruffy trailers whose doors or windows are often hanging off. Wild dogs wander the dirt roads, and smoke from illegal burning can be so bad that children cannot play outside.
Duroville sits beside the biggest illegal dump in California, one that was closed last year and occasionally erupts into fire spontaneously, spewing toxic smoke.
The inspectors came from the BIA, the EPA and the state Department of Housing and Community Development. They checked to see whether trailers were far enough apart, whether the propane tanks were in working order, whether the electrical service was properly installed and how solid and liquid waste were disposed of.
A fire at Duroville in May destroyed six trailers and caused the evacuation of 120 more. The BIA said the trailers were too close to one another.
None of the inspectors would talk about what they found, saying they would file a report to be released within 45 days. Dominguez Park will be inspected today.
Inspectors did say that the decision to check the parks was not related to the legal actions now being taken against Duroville.
That park, which houses 4,000 residents, is being taken to court by the BIA for allegedly not making repairs ordered by the bureau three years ago.
"We are doing assessments and are not looking at any closures or evictions," Tenley said.
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