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U.S. cites health risks at desert trailer parks

Times Staff Writer

A federal inspection of three large trailer parks on the Torres Martinez reservation in Riverside County has found numerous health and safety violations, including faulty electrical systems and open sewage that threaten the health of park residents.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs did the inspections last August at Oasis Mobile Home Park, D & D Mobile Home Park and an unnamed park adjacent to Oasis.

Although the full report will be released next week, officials said Thursday that they found failing electrical and septic systems, unfenced sewage ponds, arsenic in the drinking water and inadequate fire protection.

The three parks, owned by members of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian tribe near Thermal, house thousands of low-wage farmworkers and because they sit on Indian land do not have to comply with local and state health and building codes.

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At D & D park, located across from Oasis Elementary School and owned by Richard Dominguez and Ron Davis, inspectors found sewage running from a pipe into an open field, posing a hazard to children in the park and at the school, the EPA said.

At the unnamed park run by Robin Lawson, the septic tanks and parts of the electrical system are on the verge of failing, officials said.

The EPA and the BIA say the situation is so bad they have ordered D & D and Lawson to fix the sewage and electrical problems within five days.

“These problems must be addressed immediately,” said Clancy Tenley, associate director of tribal programs for the EPA.

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Federal officials met with the park owners Tuesday and went over the report with them.

“They expressed interest in being cooperative, and we gave them guidance on changes they need to make,” Tenley said.

The owners were told to install more fire hydrants, remove flammable structures, post evacuation plans, correct electrical and sewage deficiencies and ensure connections to propane tanks were properly attached.

Each park was ordered to hire a professional, licensed engineer to investigate arsenic in the drinking water and to make improvements in the sewer systems.

“The Oasis park has large sewage ponds which were not engineered to meet the current capacity,” Tenley said. “They need to be replaced with an alternative.”

Oasis, the largest of the three, is owned by Lawson’s brother, Scott Lawson.

None of the owners could be reached for comment.

Park owners were also told to retain electricians to evaluate their wiring systems. Inspectors will be sent to the parks within a week to make sure all urgent changes are made.

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“It will take them a lot of time to make some of these other improvements,” Tenley said. “In all three parks, corrective action needs to be taken to protect the health of folks living there. This is achievable, and the owners indicate they want to do it.”

The BIA has declared the parks illegal because they do not have government-approved leases. In order to get a lease they must make major improvements, said James Fletcher, superintendent of the BIA’s Southern California agency.

In a related issue, the EPA announced Wednesday that following a yearlong series of inspections, it has fined two park owners for clean water and sewage violations.

Officials said Harvey Duro, owner of the Desert Mobile Home Park, or Duroville, and Oasis owner Scott Lawson failed to adequately monitor drinking water supplies and improperly disposed of garbage and hazardous waste.

Duro was fined $1,525 and Lawson $32,325.

Both men agreed to devise a waste management plan and establish regular garbage pickup at the parks to prevent open dumping.

Duroville is the largest park on the reservation with about 350 trailers and at least 4,000 residents. Scott Lawson’s park has about 300 trailers while D & D has close to 70 and Robin Lawson’s park has roughly 20, officials estimate.

Of the parks on the reservation, only Duroville faces possible shutdown. A series of inspections, including one done last July by the BIA, led Fletcher to describe the place as an imminent threat to the health of its residents.

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The U.S. attorney’s office in Los Angeles said it expected to file a lawsuit in the next few days demanding that Duro either make wholesale changes or have his park shut down.

david.kelly@latimes.com


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