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Cabazon tribe agrees to air quality monitoring

Environmental regulators will be allowed to enforce air quality laws on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation in the Coachella Valley, an agreement reached seven months after noxious odors from a recycling facility sickened nearby schoolchildren.

Under the agreement announced Wednesday, inspectors from the South Coast Air Quality Management District will have the authority to enter sovereign tribal land to monitor environmental laws on a reservation industrial park and issue violations.

In May, an investigation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency determined that Western Environmental Inc., which recycles toxic soils on the reservation site, was the primary source of noxious odors that sent teachers to the hospital and sickened children at an elementary school in Mecca. The EPA ordered the company to cease accepting hazardous materials and reduce two, four-story mountains of contaminated soil on the site.

The agreement between the AQMD and the Cabazon tribe is the first of its kind in California, said Barry Wallerstein, the environmental agency’s executive officer.

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“This creates a level playing field for operations on and off tribal land. In large part it represents what the community had requested,” Wallerstein said. “The tribe did not have to agree to any of this. This represents a new era of environmental leadership by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians and sets an example for other tribes to follow.”

Cabazon tribal Chairman David Roosevelt initially opposed sacrificing the tribe’s sovereign rights by opening the reservation to state enforcement. In a statement released Wednesday, however, he said the new agreement was acceptable to both sides.

Under the agreement, any violation notice issued by AQMD regulators will be reviewed by a tribal environmental board consisting of two tribal members and an AQMD representative, which has the authority to accept, deny or modify the citation. A facility that receives a violation can appeal that ruling to the Cabazon Tribal Court, which has final jurisdiction.

The Colmac Energy Inc. biomass-to-energy plant on the reservation is exempt from the agreement because it operates under a separate monitoring and enforcement pact reached in 1989 among the tribe, the EPA, AQMD and Riverside County.

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In August, the EPA reached an agreement with Western Environmental that prohibits the company from accepting soil and other material that may cause harmful odors on its 40-acre site. The company also agreed to closely monitor its site for odor and to install an odor-control misting system.

Darryl Adams, superintendent of the Coachella Valley School District, called Wednesday’s agreement a “step in the right direction” but reserved judgment until he can review the details.

“There appears to be an improvement,” Adams said. “We haven’t had any more complaints to the district office since they shut it down.”

phil.willon@latimes.com

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