A California consumer advocacy group is demanding a state investigation of a Wildomar housing tract where residents have abandoned houses that they blame for making them sick.
"This case clearly calls for an investigation of the soil in Wildomar, including tests for heavy metals, volatile organic compounds, and other toxins," said a report by the Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog.
The 68-page report cites the Wildomar situation, among several examples, as evidence that the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is "falling down on the job" in its mission to protect people from hazardous waste and toxic materials regulated by the state.
Consumer Watchdog in the past has fought for health and car insurance reforms. The group conducts investigations intended to expose "rip-offs and injustices" in business and government, according to its website.
Wildomar resident Xonia Villanueva, whose family left their home in the Autumnwood tract in 2011 after numerous illnesses, said Wednesday that she hopes the report spurs the state to finally take meaningful action.
"I am hopeful that someone in the department will reconsider a decision made earlier to avoid a thorough and comprehensive investigation that we think needs to be done," she said.
The group's report also faults the toxic substances agency for allowing shipments of more than 160,000 tons of hazardous waste to an outdoor soil-recycling plant in Mecca that did not have a state permit to accept such waste, a problem uncovered by a Press-Enterprise investigation in 2011.
Fumes from plant were blamed for sickening children and teachers at a nearby elementary school and forcing people in the rural Riverside County community to stay indoors.
The Toxic Substances Control department, a division of the state Environmental Protection Agency, oversees the movement and disposal of hazardous waste, and investigates and oversees the clean-up of contaminated sites throughout the state.
The group's report describes an ineffective and dysfunctional regulatory agency.
"The DTSC is a troubled agency with a long-standing culture of mission fatigue, pro-business bias, and fear of political criticism," the report states. "Reform at the department is long overdue."
The report is based on public records, anonymous comments from current and former toxic substances department staff members, media reports and accounts by citizens affected by contamination.
Department spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe said department officials haven't the seen the report, which was scheduled to be made public Thursday, Feb. 21. But she said that agency representatives have met with the Consumer Watchdog people and "understand their concerns."
"We take our mission of protecting the public from hazardous waste seriously…" she said. "Standards for hazardous waste management in California are the most stringent in the country, offering the highest levels of protection for Californians."
Wildomar residents have repeatedly expressed frustration with the agency, which so far has declined to investigate the 61-home Autumnwood tract for chemical contamination.
Tests commissioned by an attorney representing a group of residents found chemicals in the soil at some homes, as did tests by the South Coast Air Quality Management District. Officials of the toxic substances agency said the levels were too low to merit further investigation and were unlikely to cause illness.
Several families in the tract have blamed their homes for triggering illnesses that included headaches, rashes, nosebleeds, breathing difficulties, flu, sinus infections, pneumonia and gastrointestinal problems.
Two residents of the neighborhood, both women in their 30s, have died. The Riverside County coroner's office concluded that the most recent death, in August, was from naturally occurring pneumonia.
Lab tests determined that the body of Fatima Atencio, 36, contained elevated levels of barium, but coroner officials told her husband, Thomas Ciccarelli, that the barium wasn't a factor in her death.
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