A grim-faced George AuClair Jr. wandered his 25-acre patch of desert looking every inch the broken man.
“I’m ashamed of what happened here, but you can’t lie about it,” said the Torres Martinez tribal member. “You have to own up when you do wrong.”
Not far away, bulldozers piled up mountains of junk from AuClair’s illegal dump, a dump so toxic it has been declared a Superfund site by the Environmental Protection Agency. He now faces millions of dollars in fines.
AuClair’s site isn’t unusual. Illegal dumps are spread across the Torres Martinez reservation like ugly wounds, making it the most polluted tribal land in California, Nevada and Arizona. Vast swaths of desert have been transformed into toxic trash heaps threatening the tribe and nearby communities. There are at least 26 illegal dumps here, including the largest one in the state. Federal officials struggle to shut them down, but new ones pop up all the time.
“I would say this is in its own league,” said Clancy Tenley, EPA’s tribal program manager. “I don’t know of any place that has this level of pollution.”
Unlike the nearby Agua Caliente, Morongo and Cabazon tribes, the Torres Martinez are poor. They don’t have luxury hotels, spas or, until recently, even a casino.
But they do have land: 24,000 acres of it stretching from Riverside to Imperial counties, and even under the Salton Sea. And as development in the Coachella Valley has exploded, some tribal members have cashed in by offering land to those looking to cut corners on waste disposal costs.
Golf course trimmings from clubs throughout the Coachella Valley have arrived in unmarked trucks, and drums of oil, car batteries and sewage also wind up there. Even waste from nearby cities found its way onto the reservation via unscrupulous contractors. And when the pile gets high enough, it’s often just burned.
The result, federal officials say, has been widespread contamination along with toxic smoke drifting over cities, schools and farms across the Coachella Valley.
“We find new dumps on a regular basis,” said Ray Paiz, battalion chief for the Riverside County Fire Department in Coachella. “What has occurred out there is not only wrong, but it’s a shameful criminal act.”
So far AuClair, 50, is the only owner expressing any shame.
His site had it all. Fires routinely sent poisons into the air; more than 34,000 square feet of arsenic and chromium ash littered the place. Transients also lived there; drug abuse was rife, and there was at least one killing, say police and the EPA.
AuClair’s biggest mistake was burning thousands of toxic wooden grape stakes.
“How could we have known grape stakes were treated with arsenic and chromium?” he asked. “There was no sign saying, ‘This is hazardous to your health.’ ”
And he insists his own health wasn’t damaged.
“I lost my hair, but I think that was a thyroid problem,” he said, “and I get headaches, but that could be anything.”
Still, the site is small compared with other illegal dumps on the reservation.
A few miles away, looming up from the desert floor is a plateau 40 feet high, 300 feet wide and nearly 1,000 feet long, composed almost entirely of human excrement. It’s been dubbed Mt. San Diego because of where the sewage originated.
A mile or so from that is the towering Lawson dump, the biggest in California. The 40-acre site has mountains of debris 50 feet high and a million tons of buried waste. Subterranean fires smolder endlessly, occasionally flaring up through cracks. Since a federal judge shut it down last year, there have been more than 20 fires injuring nine firefighters.
“It’s the largest dump I have seen in my career, and I have been doing this since 1986,” said Scott Walker of the California Integrated Waste Management Board. “Nothing else compares.”
School nurses in the Coachella Valley have reported high levels of asthma, bronchitis and skin rashes among local students that they attribute to smoke from dump fires, especially the Lawson facility.
In response, Loma Linda University recently sent a team of researchers to survey the pupils and will issue a report before the school year is out.
“We think the community health has been impacted, and we want the schools to know, we want the families to know and we want the tribe to know,” said Rick Alvarez, assistant superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District.
Despite flagrant violations of federal law, it’s only in the last year that the dumps faced serious enforcement action.
“Over the years the tribe, the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the EPA tried different things to combat this problem, but it wasn’t until we all began to work together that things got done,” said Tenley, the EPA manager. “There has been a radical transformation, especially in the last 12 months. Ten dumps have been closed.”
Before that, layers of bureaucracy, tribal politics and intimidation allowed operators almost free rein on the reservation.
Federal officials trace the first big dump to 1989, when tribal member Geraldine Ibanez, who has since died, made a deal with now-defunct Chino Corona Farms to compost sewage on her land. But the company composted only a fraction of the sewage, which originated in San Diego, and left the rest in a giant, growing pile.
In 1994, a federal court in Los Angeles barred further shipments to the site, though illegal dumping has persisted on a smaller scale. Two years later, the two owners of Chino Corona Farms were convicted for illegal dumping in Imperial County and were sent to prison, according to state officials.
Mt. San Diego stands just a half-mile from three schools and directly beside an empty lot advertised as a future Pardee Home site. According to state environmental documents, it still “poses a significant threat not only to the ... reservation but also to the neighboring communities.” Cleanup efforts began last year and will continue at least through 2008.
Three years after Ibanez opened her dump, fellow Torres Martinez member Kim Lawson started a “recycling center” on tribal land.
Little if any recycling went on, investigators say. Semi-trucks dropped off loads of palm trees, treated wood, plastics, paint and oil, among other things.
“Kim Lawson used to burn twice a month, and it would last for hours or days,” said EPA attorney Letitia Moore. “You could see the smoke for 50 miles.”
Citing a total lack of permits, the BIA issued Lawson a cease-and-desist order in 1994. Yet he continued to operate. It took more than a decade to shut it down. Lawson could not be reached for comment.
Unlike in some other states, the BIA in California has no police officers to enforce its will.
“It would be a lot easier to have a law enforcement officer standing with you when handing out cease-and-desist letters,” said Lisa Northrop, natural resources officer for the BIA’s Southern California Agency. “If they ignore the letters, we hand them out again. We need to create a record before taking someone to court.”
Torres Martinez tribal leaders insist they have no power over members such as Lawson because they run businesses on private land allotted to their families by the government.
The BIA and legal experts dispute that.
“The tribe does have jurisdiction over these allotments, but it’s complicated for tribes to exercise coercive authority over them because of intertribal relationships,” said UCLA law professor Carole Goldberg, an expert on Indian law who has written extensively about dumping on tribal lands. “It is very delicate.”
James Fletcher, BIA superintendent for Southern California, said the Torres Martinez tribe, which has 400 members on the reservation, has largely cooperated in efforts to stop dumping but hasn’t done all it can.
“The tribe has ordinances, but they choose not to use them,” he said.
One tool the tribe could use, Fletcher said, is cutting off gaming money to lawbreakers.
Tribal Chairman Ray Torres refused to comment, citing instructions from his tribal council. Tribal Manager Maxine Resvaloso did not return repeated calls seeking comment. The tribe’s environmental director, Alberto Ramirez, also declined to comment.
Aside from internal politics, violence and intimidation also remain serious problems.
“People who have objected to the running of an illegal dump have had their families threatened,” said Lt. Mark Barfknecht of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, whose deputies patrol the reservation. “As recently as 18 months ago there was a school project where kids living in and around the reservation filmed the burning in the illegal dumps and were chased off by armed men.”
Cesar Rafael, 17, of Thermal was one of those kids.
“They shot a gun into the air,” he said. “I was trying to film when it happened.”
A virtual Wild West atmosphere prevailed at the AuClair dump. Methamphetamine use was common, deputies said. At least 13 people lived in makeshift shelters. On a recent visit, a man pulled up and warned that two other men were shooting at each other around the corner.
Back in the brush, Tonetta Torro, 50, tended the four wolves she keeps tied up for protection. She has spent four years here in a tent but plans to leave soon.
“I hear gunshots all the time,” she said. “Still, I feel sad to go.”
The arrival of trailer parks on the reservation in the 1990s heightened a sense of urgency about the dumps.
More than 12,000 people, mostly farmworkers, live in five ramshackle parks. The biggest sits beside the Lawson dump site.
In 2003, the EPA issued an internal memo reporting dioxin levels 20 times the national average at the dump.
Last year, a federal judge in Riverside shut it down and fined Kim Lawson $47 million. He has declared bankruptcy.
As for AuClair, his dump may be closed, but his shame lingers.
“We are destroying our environment,” he said, picking up a piece of Indian grinding stone lying in the sand. “I don’t have the money to pay for it, but I’ll be damned if I won’t clean this up. Look at this place. My ancestors would roll over in their graves if they saw it.”