ENVIRONMENT: Public agencies took contaminated soil to reservation facility

Source: The Press-Enterprise, April 11, 2011
By: David Danelski

School districts, the U.S. Marine Corps and Caltrans are among the public agencies and private companies that improperly shipped 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 Press-Enterprise analysis of 2009-2010 state data has found.

The shipments to the 10-acre Western Environmental Inc. plant, located on tribal land near the Salton Sea, violated state regulations that require those who create or dig up such waste to dispose of it at state-permitted facilities.

Residents of Mecca, a predominantly Hispanic farming community in the Coachella Valley, have complained to public agencies about strong odors from plant. They say the smell has made children and adults ill, sending some to the hospital.

During a monthlong investigation, the newspaper analyzed more than 10,000 shipments of contaminated soil and other waste to the Mecca plant.

When presented with the analysis on Thursday, Stewart Black, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control acting deputy director for brownfields and environmental restoration, said: “In a nutshell, the waste should not have gone to that facility.”

The facility had a permit from the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians, a sovereign tribe that owns the land, but no state permit, Black said. The state permit would have to be obtained under an agreement between the tribe and the state’s secretary for environmental protection, and that has not been done, he said.

After Black reviewed documents uncovered by The Press-Enterprise, his agency on Thursday began notifying companies and agencies using the Mecca plant to stop taking hazardous-waste shipments there.

A Western Environmental project manager, Mark Patton, said the company is being unfairly singled out. He said the facility meets federal standards and the state has no jurisdiction over the plant because it is on sovereign land. He also has said odors in the area could come from farming, the Salton Sea or another industry.

Agencies that have used the Mecca plant include the Los Angeles Unified School District, Caltrans, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, Port of Los Angeles, Camp Pendleton and San Bernardino City Unified School District. Dozens of private companies also sent waste there.

Representatives of some of those agencies said they were unaware the Mecca plant did not have a state permit and would follow the directive to stop taking contaminated waste there.

“We have directed our contractors to cease dumping at this facility,” Caltrans spokesman Matt Rocco said Friday in an email. He added that landfills that accept such waste are at capacity, so his agency is looking at out-of-state alternatives.


In all, 163,941 tons of hazardous waste was shipped to Western Environmental between Jan 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010. Most of it — 86 percent — was classified “as contaminated soils from site clean-up,” usually dirt laced with oil, gasoline and other hydrocarbons that emit fumes, according to the newspaper analysis of state data.. Other waste included sewage sludge, inorganic solids and oily water.

For example, Los Angeles Unified moved tons of contaminated soil from a South Gate school site southeast of downtown Los Angeles. A machine shop, pesticide manufacturer, metal plating operation and foundry were among the industries that previously had operated on the land.

Asked if those who shipped hazardous materials to the Mecca plant could face penalties, Black said he could not comment.

Brendon Biggs, San Bernardino County public works manager, said the Mecca plant was listed as a disposal site on the Department of Toxic Substances Control website. Biggs said because of that listing, the plant was used by public works contractors to dispose of soil contaminated with diesel fuel discovered along a county road in Lucerne Valley.

Black acknowledged that there was widespread misunderstanding about the Mecca plant’s status and that the confusion extended into his own agency.

Public records show that Department of Toxic Substances Control officials approved shipments to Mecca of contaminated soils from Los Angeles-area sites that were being cleaned up to make way for new school construction.

“We have to look into our internal communications,” Black said. “Some of our project managers did not have the word that it is not a state-permitted facility.”

Black’s agency, among other duties, oversees cleanup of school sites.

Records show that in 2009 and 2010, the Los Angeles Unified School District trucked 39,700 tons of hazardous waste, including lead- and oil-contaminated soil, to the Mecca plant. The San Bernardino City Unified School District shipped 1,375 tons from district property, records show,

“It’s disappointing,” said Celia Garcia, a special education teacher at Mecca’s Saul Martinez Elementary School, where odors in recent months have made children ill and forced recesses to be indoors. “To protect their children, they don’t have to dump in my backyard and expose my kids to their contamination. They should know better.”


Mecca is a small residential enclave surrounded by fields of grapes, lettuce, broccoli and citrus, among other crops irrigated with water from the Colorado River. About 5,600 people live there; 92 percent are Hispanic. The median household takes in about $25,900 a year.

People there feel powerless and taken advantage of, Garcia said. Various officials greeted their complaints about the odors with crossed arms and no action, she said. Little can be done, residents were told repeatedly, about a facility located within a one-square-mile island of tribal land that’s outside the jurisdiction of local and state regulations.

More than 100 Mecca-area residents showed up for a Feb. 16 meeting with representatives of public agencies and Western Environmental. Many in the audience laughed when a tribal representative said the tribe’s goal was to protect the Earth by recycling contaminated soil — not to make money.

Last week, Garcia said it took The Press-Enterprise and outside officials to show that those who ship hazardous waste in California must follow state law.

Officials with the Cabazon tribe did not return voicemail messages left at their Indio offices on Thursday and Friday.

During the public meeting in Mecca, Tribal Chairman David Roosevelt told a packed school auditorium that the tribe has allowed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and South Coast Air Quality Management District and other agencies onto the property to conduct tests. He said the tribe insisted on operational changes earlier this year, requiring Western Environmental to move oil-contaminated wastewater from an open pond to sealed tanks.

Barry Wallerstein, the air quality agency’s executive officer, said he met with Roosevelt on Wednesday and found the chairman committed to making more improvements to reduce emissions from the plant.

Wallerstein’s agency started investigating odors in Mecca after Dec. 15, when two teachers at Saul Martinez school were taken to a hospital in Indio, where they were treated and released. Paramedics treated several children at the school, according to the school’s principal. Symptoms included nausea, vomiting, dizziness and difficulty breathing.

Some residents say their children have missed weeks of school because of illnesses they blame on the odors.

Air district officials have traced strong odors to the soils plant, but air samples collected this year have not shown elevated level of toxic substances. But the odors were strong enough to affect the health of more sensitive people, Wallerstein said.

If the plant were not on tribal land, the air district would require much of the operation to be contained to control emissions. For example, stockpiles of oil-contaminated soils, which release potentially harmful volatile organic compounds, would have to be covered with plastic sheeting.

Patton, the project manager for Western Environmental, said plant workers haven’t notice strong odors and haven’t gotten ill. He said he hopes the state permitting issue can be resolved.

The plant helps the environment by recycling soils that otherwise would go to landfills, he said. Once the soils are treated by microorganisms or heat, it meets state standards for landscaping, road building and other uses.

“We stand by what we do,” he said.


Western Environmental started operations on the tribal land in 2004, but residents say it wasn’t a problem until large, exposed dirt piles began appearing there about three years ago.

That was roughly the same time that the Los Angeles school district completed a work plan to remove soils polluted with lead and pesticides from 15 acres in south Los Angeles. The land previously had been the site of homes, a furniture manufacturer, a machine shop, an auto repair business and other light industries.

A 2008 fact sheet issued by the Department of Toxic Substances Control said the agency would “oversee the cleanup” and “ensure that it is performed in a manner that does not harm people or the environment.” The department estimated that more than 10,000 tons of contaminated soil would be removed and “lawfully transported to a state-approved disposal facility.”

The district’s work plan identified hazardous waste landfills at Kettleman City and Buttonwillow, both in the San Joaquin Valley, as the destinations for the contaminated soil.


But those plans changed when the digging began. Waste considered hazardous under California law — but not under less stringent federal law — went to Mecca.

Department of Toxic Substances Control records show more than 13,000 tons was shipped from the property, site of a future high school. “The DTSC concurred with this variance prior to the disposal activities,” said a Los Angeles school district report.

Pat Schanen, Los Angeles Unified’s environmental health manager, said Thursday that the district was still taking soil to the Mecca plant. The district had not heard from the state that the plant was off limits, he said.

The district likes to use Western Environmental because it recycles soil, helping the district achieve a goal of reducing contributions to landfills.

Disposing at the Mecca facility also costs less, he said.

Schanen said he did not have figures available, but according to school district documents, the estimated cost to dump the type of waste that went to Mecca was $100 a ton, compared to about $200 a ton at a hazardous-waste landfill.

Garcia, the Mecca schoolteacher, said it was not unusual to see more than a dozen big-rig trucks queued up off Avenue 62 to make deliveries to Western Environmental. But on Friday, a day after the state began notifying dumpers that the site did not have a California permit, no trucks were lined up, she said.

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