Mecca residents want soil-recycler closed

April 28, 2011


10:00 PM PDT on Thursday, April 28, 2011


The Press-Enterprise


Officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told an auditorium full of Mecca residents that they are investigating a soil-recycling plant for possible violations of federal hazardous waste regulations.

The meeting at Saul Martinez Elementary School drew about 150 people, and many of them said they want the plant closed immediately. They blame the operation for strong chemical odors that they say have made people sick.

"I got kids getting sick every day," said Darryl Adams, interim superintendent of the Coachella Valley Unified School District. "I got people who can't live in their homes. Give us a plan. Give us a series of meetings. Give us something."

The meeting was called by the South Coast Air Quality Management District to address about 200 complaints of odors that have been traced to the Western Environmental Inc. soil-recycling operation in north Mecca. The plant is on reservation land owned by the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.

Kindergarten teacher Shannon Tincher said she has been to the hospital and had more than 20 doctor appointments. Trace amounts of benzene have been found in her blood, she said. She now gets sick around any strong odor, she added.

"This is all new," Tincher said.

Saul Martinez Principal Delia Alvarez said her students get headaches, nausea and stomach problems.

School officials and residents directly asked David Roosevelt, Cabazon tribal chairman, to close Western Environmental, where piles of contaminated dirt are stored in the open.

Roosevelt said the tribe already got the company to contain oil wastewater and stop accepting strong-smelling soy waste. The tribe is working with the company to make more improvements, he said.

"Give us time," Roosevelt said. "There has been a rapid response. We are doing what we can as fast as we can."

Amy Miller, hazardous waste enforcement manager for the EPA's Southern Pacific region, said the agency recently completed laboratory tests on 80 soil and wastewater samples taken from the plant. One soil sample had trace amounts of PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, a toxic substance.

The sample's concentration of 4 parts per million did not violate federal limits but does merit more investigation, Miller said. The EPA has requested Western Environmental records to learn more, she said.

PCBs wouldn't cause odors, Miller said. But the substance has been linked to respiratory and gastrointestinal illnesses and is suspected of causing cancer, according to an EPA's website.

"The risk of exposure from this source would be minimal and only with those in direct contact with soils," Miller said.

Earlier this month, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control directed public agencies and private companies to stop shipping hazardous materials to Western Environmental's plant in Mecca because the facility does not have a state permit.

In 2009 and 2010, the company accepted more than 10,000 shipments of waste classified as hazardous under California law, according to public records. Much of it was soil contaminated with gasoline and other petroleum products, although shipments included liquids and lead-tainted dirt.

"We are living in a jail," Mecca resident Celia Magaña said. "We can't go outside and play with our kids. Tell me if that is fair. How many more days must we live without a solution?"

Reach David Danelski at 951-368-9471 or