The burning stench first enveloped Saul Martinez Elementary School in December, sending two teachers to the hospital and forcing a classroom lockdown as firefighters searched the grounds for the source of the noxious odor.
Liria Vargas was in tears, unable to get to her 8-year-old daughter — and herself nauseated from what she thought was an invisible cloud of poisonous gas. The mysterious odor came and went for months and, every time, her four young children complained of piercing headaches, upset stomachs and raw throats.
“I’m afraid to let my children play outside some days,” said Vargas, cradling her 1-year-old son in her living room. “It’s not just the kids. It’s everyone in this community. Everyone is affected by the smell.”
The culprit, according to environmental regulators, is a soil-recycling plant two miles north, a 40-acre operation on reservation land owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. Four-story-high mountains of contaminated soil loaded with heavy metals and leached petroleum rise from the sun-baked earth, some shipped from polluted school sites in Los Angeles.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last week ordered the company that runs the plant, Western Environmental Inc., to cease accepting hazardous materials — in effect shutting most of the operation down. State environmental regulators ordered trucking companies to stop hauling hazardous waste to the site, and for a few hours last Monday regulators had the California Highway Patrol inspect trucks pulling into the facility.
On Friday, the Southern California Air Quality Management District, which has received 215 odor complaints in the area since December, cited Western Environmental for discharging harmful air pollutants and will seek civil penalties.
The government response was at the speed of light compared with what residents are used to seeing in this desolate and impoverished area of the Coachella Valley, a vast expanse of farmland and scores of trailer parks filled mostly with farmworkers and recent immigrants.
Massive illegal dumpsites and dilapidated shantytowns have dotted the valley for decades, mostly on patchwork reservation land, sovereign Indian property beyond the reach of state and local laws.
Within sight of three schools in the immigrant haven of Thermal, on reservation land owned by the Torres Martinez Band of Mission Indians, is a plateau of human excrement that was 40 feet high at its peak. Called “Mount San Diego” for where the sewage originated, the operation was shut down by federal order in the 1990s, yet mounds remain.
A mile or so away is the towering Lawson Dump, the biggest illegal dumpsite in California, also on reservation land. A federal judge ordered the dump closed in 2006 and also seized control of the neighboring slum town known as Duroville, owned by Torres Martinez tribal member Harvey Duro — 40 acres of mostly dilapidated mobile homes and home to as many as 5,000 farmworkers.
“The east valley has been sort of blighted by environmental and housing crisis for such a long period of time … and, while there has been progress lately, we still have a long way to go,” said Megan Beaman, an attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.'s migrant farmworker program in the city of Coachella. “People would not live in those areas if they had any other choice.”
Officials with Western Environmental said the company had been unfairly tainted by the area’s notorious history. Matt Mullen, head of compliance quality control, said the facility accepts only waste that is below federal limits on toxic materials and that once it is treated, all the material is safer than state standards require. Mullen said that despite claims by state environmental officials, the facility has a permit to operate, which is issued by the tribe and meets all EPA guidelines.
An investigation by the AQMD determined that the likely cause of the odors were an open-air oil-separation pond on the site and mounds of soy whey — a common byproduct of tofu — that were trucked to the facility.
Under orders from Cabazon tribal leaders, the company already stopped accepting the soy whey and removed what was on site. The oil pond was drained and the liquid placed in temporary storage tanks.
“We’re doing everything they asked us to do,” Mullen said.
Cabazon Tribal Chairman David Roosevelt said the tribe also has allowed federal and state regulators free access to the facility to conduct all the testing and monitoring they’ve requested. While the tribe adheres to all federal environmental regulations, however, it has been reluctant to seek state environmental permits because of a possible “unforeseen impact on tribal sovereignty in the long term,” he said.
“Cabazon seeks to come to a mutually agreeable solution which satisfies state agencies and respects tribal sovereignty,” Roosevelt said. “Should we come to a mutually agreeable solution, Western should be allowed to resume operations.”
Western Environmental disputes that its facility is the sole source of the problem, saying odors have emanated for years from the vast number of farms and other agricultural operations that surround the schools and the recycling facility. Mullen and other Western Environmental representatives plan to meet with EPA regulators this week to make their case, and hope to reach an agreement to continue operations.
Chances of that happening appear slim.
“Obviously, we will listen to whatever facts that they bring up, but we are very certain that they are the source of the odor,” said Amy Miller, manager of the EPA’s hazardous waste enforcement office in San Francisco.
Miller said the odors continued even after Western Environmental removed the oil pond and soy whey, indicating that the towering mountains of contaminated soil may also be a source. The EPA has ordered the firm to cover the mounds with tarps.
The company treats the petroleum-tainted soil with microbes, and soil laden with heavy metals with fly ash and other bonding agents, saying neither process produces any odors. The treated soil has been sold to the California Department of Transportation for roadbeds and for fill dirt at construction sites.
Local school officials said they wouldn’t be satisfied until the recycling operation was shut down permanently and all the material shipped elsewhere. Darryl Adams, interim superintendent of the Coachella Valley School District, said the district is already exploring possible legal action.
“You don’t know what’s in there, and we’re not going to be the world’s dumpsite,” Adams said. “Kids are getting sick. We want them moved out of there.”
Even if that does happen, it won’t be enough for Shannon Tincher, a kindergarten teacher at Saul Martinez Elementary.
The odor sent her to the hospital once and made her sick to her stomach more than once, she said.
“My doctor told me to get out. My family told me to get out,” Tincher said. “I’m leaving after this year. The only reason I stayed was because I love my kids so much.”