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Report finds lapses at Coachella Valley waste site

May 2, 2012 |  5:52 pm

Spraying water on contaminated soil in Mecca
State regulators found inadequate environmental safeguards at a Coachella Valley soil recycling company blamed for noxious odors that sickened children at a nearby school, but said the mountains of contaminated soil do not pose a serious health threat.

Western Environmental Inc., which operates a waste facility on the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians reservation near Mecca, did not meet California hazardous waste standards "in a number of significant areas," according to a state Department of Toxic Substances Control report released Wednesday.

The liner beneath the facility and groundwater monitoring wells at the site were inadequate to prevent or detect leeching contaminates, the report concluded. The company also fell short in screening the hazardous waste trucked onto the site and in testing the treated material, according to the report.

“This facility has significant shortcomings,” said agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe. “Before we allow it to accept California hazardous waste, there are significant steps it would have to take.”

Western Environmental’s site is exempt from state environmental regulations because it is on the Cabazon reservation, a sovereign nation. State regulators said that they have met with tribal leaders and that the tribe promised to take proper action. In May, the state ordered waste haulers not to take toxic materials to the facility, a ban still being enforced.

Soil test samples taken in December show elevated levels of some hazardous materials, including polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, but not at high enough levels to pose a health risk, the report stated.

In December 2010, a burning stench enveloped nearby Saul Martinez Elementary School in Mecca, sending two teachers to the hospital and forcing a classroom lockdown as firefighters searched the grounds.

An investigation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District subsequently determined that the likely cause of the odors were an open-air separation pond and mounds of soy whey at the Western Environmental site, both of which were ordered removed.

In January, the air quality agency reached an agreement with the tribe to allow inspectors to enter sovereign tribal land to monitor environmental laws and issue citations. The Environmental Protection Agency also ordered the company to reduce two four-story mountains of contaminated soil and to monitor and control odors on the 40-acre site.

A spokeswoman for Western Environmental said the state report released Wednesday showed that neither the contaminated soil at the facility nor emissions from the site created a threat to public health. “What the community wants to know is: Is the dirt clean, is it safe? The study shows it is," said Nancy Conrad.

The Department of Toxic Substances does “not concur” with the company’s conclusion, said agency spokeswoman Charlotte Fadipe, who noted that the wells on the site, in place to detect contamination in the aquifer, were found to be dry.

Residents also remained unconvinced. “We feel the matter still has not been resolved,” said Maria Machuca, a member of the Mecca Community Council. “We still get funky smells."


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Photo: Water is sprayed on contaminated soil at the Western Environmental Inc. waste site in Mecca. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times