By Johnny Flores, Jr., and Brenda R. Rincón
MECCA, Calif. — Two dump sites. One with forty-foot high mounds of waste, the other overflowing with tons of old tires, within a half-mile of each other and in close proximity to families.
The foul odors emanating from these facilities became almost normal for the nearly 10,000 residents of Mecca, but this Eastern Coachella Valley community – led by activists such as Eduardo Guevara — has taken big steps toward improving their quality of life.
In May 2011, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) notified transporters that Western Environmental, Inc., did not have a valid hazardous waste permit to operate in the state of California. There have not been any significant odor problems reported since then.
Their most recent milestone was the August 15 visit by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to provide an update at the monthly Eastern Coachella Valley Environmental Justice Taskforce meeting. Although the EPA ordered Consolidated Tire Recyclers to clear the mountains of old tires and waste well over a year ago, Guevara says the agency had never actually visited the area to speak directly to the community regarding the tires until Amy Miller and Kathleen Johnson attended this taskforce meeting.
“A week before the taskforce, on August 7, Luis Olmedo (of Comité Cívico del Valle) and I went to the EPA Regional Office in San Diego and expressed in person our concerns regarding Consolidated Tire Recyclers, among other issues of both Imperial and Coachella valleys, directly to Lisa Garcia, senior advisor of Lisa Jackson, director of EPA,” said Guevara, associate director of the grassroots Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto. “On August 10, I spoke on the phone with Amy Miller to confirm the visit, and also to reassure that Kathleen Johnson, director of the new EPA Enforcement Division, would be here also. We had not let the tires issue go in the meetings, calls, and messages between the taskforce, Promotores Comunitarios, and the agencies. Sooner or later, they had to come and talk about that.”
Miller, a special assistant in the Enforcement Office of the EPA, recalls things a bit differently.
In an email to Coachella Unincorporated, Miller said, “I am not aware of Luis or Eduardo’s visit to EPA’s San Diego Office. I have routinely attended the task force meeting to present information on EPA activity in the Mecca area. Since the task force no longer has a conference line, I decided to come down in person.”
The Cabazon Band of Mission Indians owns First Nation Recovery, Inc., which was operated by Consolidated Tire Recyclers. The tribe has removed 1,400 tons of tires from the site, much of it after a July 4 fire. The tires were transferred to other landfills, although it is unclear where.
“I have not gone into the tribe’s recovery park recently, but from the outside the tires look pretty much the same. Amy Miller, however, showed us some pictures she took personally, and a number of tires are not there anymore,” said Guevara. “Yet, it is not enough. There’s a report of a fire in Western Environmental and the chief of the fire station here in Mecca expressed some concerns regarding the facilities. The risk of a fire is still imminent.”
The EPA also previously ordered Western Environmental, located on tribal land but not owned by the tribe, to clear away its piles of waste and to stop accepting additional shipments. Residents have long believed this site was the major source of the stench that often lingered over the community.
At the August 15 meeting, the EPA reported that Western Environmental has complied with an odor control plan and weekly updates.
“Western Environmental may be under EPA’s compliance, but they received material they were not supposed to, and I am more concerned about the state’s requirements including a double liner and monitoring wells,” said Guevara. “After the Department of Toxic Substances Control’s presentation in Mecca on May 17, the tribe has not said a word on their next steps. We are going to start pushing again for an answer from the tribe.”
Tribal member Becky Ross was present at the August 15 meeting, which Guevara said is very significant as his group has repeatedly invited the tribe to their monthly meetings. According to Guevara, the EPA representatives were being transported in the tribe’s Environmental Department vehicle.
In her email, Miller explained, “We drove with a tribal rep to the meeting as we came immediately from the tire facility. I did not want to be late. In addition, EPA provides the tribe technical assistance on environmental regulation. I encouraged the tribe to send a representative to the meeting to hear community concerns.”
“We invite them each month and they just ignore us, then publicly the tribe’s Chairman says that nobody invites them nor wants to talk to them when no cameras are present,” he said.
“The visit of EPA’s key persons has been worked on for months. Miller’s visit was due since May, but we worked a little bit for it to happen,” said Guevara, adding that the Department of Toxic Substances Control visited the area last month an that they are pushing the Air Quality Management District to return. “Some people did not have answers to their questions, this conversation needs to be followed up. Still, this is a good start, especially since we had a tribal member here.”
Guevara, who has been involved in the environmental justice movement for almost two years, says he will stop “when we have clean air, regulated and appropriately-located recycling/disposal facilities, true enforcement and oversight on tribal lands and, most of all, equity regarding the application of policies and rules regarding not only the environment, but all aspects of the East Valley life.”