iSun Investigation: Report Faults State For Stink In Mecca

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Regulators failed to prevent Mecca's misery, agency says

Early and more vigilant monitoring by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control could have helped stem noxious odors from Western Environmental Inc.’s recycling plant in Mecca, according to a new report slamming the agency for a pattern of lax enforcement efforts, bias toward industry and wrist-slap fines at similar sites across California.

The plant, which handles contaminated soils, is on land owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians. It operated in Mecca for more than seven years and accepted more than 200,000 tons of California hazardous waste before DTSC officials acknowledged in 2011 that it lacked the proper permitting to accept that waste.

California’s hazardous waste laws are more stringent than federal standards so some materials classified as hazardous in the state are not covered by federal law.

(MORE: Read past coverage from The Desert Sun)

Odors from the plant had plagued and in some cases, sickened Mecca residents for months in 2010-2011. One of the worst incidents occurred Dec. 15, 2010, when strong, gasoline-like odors from the plant completely enveloped nearby Saul Martinez Elementary School, causing nausea and dizziness among students and teachers.

“It’s very hard for me to believe that someone inside the DTSC did not know what was happening,” said Liza Tucker, a consumer advocate for Consumer Watchdog, the Santa Monica-based group that issued the report. “Someone should be held to account; the public has lost faith in the ability of that department to protect public health, particularly working class Latino communities.”

Not good enough

While odors from the plant have stopped — thanks largely to orders the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency issued in spring and summer of 2011 — some area residents say the DTSC is still falling down on the job.

The agency should be looking into what caused the odors in the first place, toxic dust from the plant, said Luis Olmedo, executive director of Comite Civico del Valle, an east valley group that helped organize Saturday’s Environmental Health Leadership Summit in Thermal.

"There’s not an ongoing effort to track, monitor and map out where this dust is deposited in the community,” Olmedo said in a phone interview on Friday. “That can be done. The science is there; the regulatory agencies are there. They need to get out there and map it out and see what the magnitude of the harm is.”

Western Environmental has consistently denied it was the source of the odors, but general manager Matthew Mullen said Friday the plant is working with the EPA and the tribe to comply with the federal orders.

David Roosevelt, chairman of the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, was unavailable for comment Friday afternoon, but in an interview with The Desert Sun last year said he hoped the plant could be certified as meeting both federal and the more stringent state standards.

The Consumer Watchdog report, titled “Golden Wasteland,” draws on a March 2012 Desert Sun expose on Western Environmental to document how the DTSC bungled its regulatory oversight of the plant for close to a decade. It also details seven other, similar cases where agency inaction or missteps have threatened the public’s health.

The DTSC has made no official statement about the report, but in an internal memo, made public by KNTV, a NBC affiliate in San Jose, director Deborah O. Raphael ordered a comprehensive review of its permitting process.

The report has triggered a call by state Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angles, and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Long Beach, both for the Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes to investigate the agency.

Assemblyman V. Manuel Pérez, D-Coachella, said late Friday he had not yet read the entire Consumer Watchdog report, but felt that the agency more recently has acted in good faith responding to his and the community’s concerns about Western Environmental.

But, he said, “I think there may be more deeply entrenched problems within the department’s culture that prompted some of the issues raised in the report.”

Pérez has also introduced a new bill in the Assembly, specifically targeting the DTSC’s siting policies for plants handling hazardous wastes, to better protect low-income and minority communities such as Mecca.

Lack of clarity

The DTSC’s current role in monitoring Western Environmental is something of a gray area.

Following public outcry over the Saul Martinez incident, the agency claimed in an August 2011 internal performance evaluation that it had been aware of problems at the plant but had been stymied by a long-standing conflict with the tribe over issues of jurisdiction. The tribe had not allowed agency inspectors on site to collect soil samples.

In the meantime, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stepped in, at the specific urging of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, a Democrat and Rancho Mirage resident, and in May of 2011, issued an order drastically limiting the kinds of waste Western Environmental could accept.

In a highly visible move that same month, DTSC agents and the California Highway Patrol stopped 27 trucks just before they reached the Mecca plant. If they were carrying hazardous waste, they were turned back.

The agency also issued its own evaluation of the plant — a month after The Desert Sun’s expose — including 19 recommendations for actions Western Environmental would need to take before it would be able to again accept California hazardous waste.

The list ranged from extensive measures, such as replacing single-layered polyethyline liners protecting the groundwater below its soil piles with double-layered liners, to improvements in screening, testing and documentation of the hazardous wastes it processes. The estimated price tag for bringing the plant into compliance with state code was $500,000.

The catch here is that since the EPA order, Western Environmental is not processing any California hazardous materials, effectively taking it out of the DTSC’s jurisdiction.

DTSC officials were unable to say Friday whether any of the recommendations in its report had been followed or further enforcement actions taken.

The agency’s website has a special page devoted to Western Environmental, with links to all recent documents on the plant, but nothing new has been posted since May. Mullen also made no mention of plans for the facility to act on the recommendations.

The issue lights up

Amy Miller, deputy director of the EPA’s enforcement division, who was at the plant for an inspection on Friday, said she continues to work with the tribe on bringing the facility into compliance with federal regulations. She receives weekly reports from the tribe, she said, but problems remain.

A fire broke out on dirt piles at Western Environmental in the early morning hours of Jan. 13. The Riverside County Fire Department arrived on the scene around 1:57 a.m., but the fire had been largely put out by people on the site and no official report was filed, said Melody Hendrickson, a public information specialist with the department.

“There have been fires in the compost pile,” Miller said. “They take in soil; they take in a lot of construction debris and they take in vegetation. Those composting piles were getting a little high because the amount of space on the site has been limited. We’ve been talking about it; they’re bringing in new equipment.”

Celia Garcia was a special education teacher at Saul Martinez Elementary on Dec. 15, 2010, when the odors engulfed the school, and she said, incidents like the Jan. 13 fire trigger ongoing community concerns about the plant.

“We live on high alert ever since our experience with Western Environmental,” she said. “We’re waiting for something to happen, whether to report an odor or a fire or dust control. That is our day-to-day now.”

Reporter K Kaufmann can be reached at (760) 778-4622 or at [email protected]. Follow @kkaufmann

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