Duroville spokesman disputes BIA report
Hoping to head off possible closure, representatives of the troubled Desert Mobile Home Park on Thursday accused the Bureau of Indian Affairs of racism and failing to provide them with detailed reports that criticize the park as a health hazard.
“If the park shuts down it will be a disaster for Riverside County,” said Alan Singer, who was recently hired by park owner Harvey Duro as his spokesman. “Before the mobile home park, people were living under trees, in cars. They were mugged, they were shot. Don’t they have a right to have a roof over their head?”
Singer, along with park manager Jack Gradias, held a news conference at Larson Justice Center in Indio where they criticized the BIA for speaking to journalists about a park inspection before sharing it with park officials.
They disputed allegations that the crowded park, often called Duroville, represents an imminent threat to the health and safety of the 4,000 low-wage farmworkers living there.
Last month, the BIA inspected the 40-acre facility on the Torres Martinez Reservation near Highway 86 in Thermal. James Fletcher, who heads the Southern California Agency of the BIA, said this week that standing sewage, dangerous electrical wiring and trailers packed together made the place a hazard. A fire in May burned six trailers and left eight families homeless.
The BIA ordered Duro to make repairs in 2004 that the agency said were not done. Agency officials will decide next week whether to give him one more chance or ask a court to shut the park down.
The park has been cited numerous times over the years for clean-water violations, open sewage, illegal dumping and insufficient space between its estimated 350 trailers. Because the park is on Indian land, it is not subject to county building and safety codes.
Both Singer and Gradias said the BIA had not given them the report and didn’t respond to their phone calls. They also accused Fletcher of being predisposed to closing the park.
Fletcher denied the allegations, saying he had met Thursday with Duro and the Torres Martinez Tribal Council and went over all the findings. He said a written report would be delivered next week. Duro is a former chairman of the tribe and a member of the council.
“My concern is for the folks living in those units; it’s not safe for them,” Fletcher said. “If Mr. Duro would provide safe drinking water, have no electrical hazards and would deal with the proximity of the trailers to each other, he would not be in this predicament.”
After the government becomes aware of potential hazards and unsanitary conditions, he said, it cannot simply ignore them.
“We are obliged to do something about it,” he said. “If we didn’t, we could possibly be legally liable.”
Gradias said tenants were now worried about being evicted, and some had withheld rent payments. He also suggested that the BIA was motivated by racism because nearly every park tenant is Latino.
“Open your eyes,” he said. “Illegal immigration is in the news now.”
Fletcher said, if anything, he was acting out of concern for the tenants.
“I don’t think Mr. Duro understands that there is more to running a park than saying ‘Here’s where you hook up your trailer,’ ” he said.
Gradias pointed out that the recent fire wasn’t caused by faulty wiring but by arson. Asked if it was made worse by the warren of trailers, he said couldn’t comment because he hadn’t seen the report.
“Harvey doesn’t own the trailers; the people own the trailers,” he said. “We are not trying to hide anything.”
Singer noted that while the BIA was threatening to shut down Duroville, the Environmental Protection Agency was working with the owner to make changes.
“The EPA is apparently willing to allow further improvements while the BIA keeps targeting those whom it is supposed to help,” he said.
In December, the EPA warned Duro that it would take enforcement action if he didn’t stop illegal dumping and other environmental violations at the park. Since then, they have been working on a resolution.
“We have different agencies with different responsibilities,” said Letitia Moore, an EPA lawyer working with Duro.
“Our focus has been around waste management issues. BIA has a number of larger issues they are dealing with like housing and living conditions in the park. They have a much larger role in Indian country. We are not working at cross-purposes.”