May 18, 2013
On Edge of Paradise, Coachella Workers Live in Grim Conditions
Posted on Nov 2, 2011
By Patricia Leigh Brown
This report was produced by California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting.
THERMAL, Calif.—At one end of Avenue 54, a road slicing through some of the most fertile land in the United States, resides the California of the popular imagination: a place of Bermuda shorts, putting greens and picture-window champagne dinners overlooking the infinity pool.
But there is another Avenue 54 concealed behind tumbleweeds and dust. It is the 54 of arsenic-tainted water, frequent blackouts and raw sewage that backs up into the shower. It is a place of grim housekeeping, where the residents of the Eastern Coachella Valley’s roughly 125 illegal mobile home parks struggle to make 720 square feet of deteriorating metal and plywood a safe and habitable home.
Even the names of unincorporated communities here—Mecca, Oasis—evoke Biblical lands, befitting the manmade plagues that beset the region. This desert valley, about 130 miles southeast of Los Angeles, is one of the country’s richest agricultural areas, an irrigation-fed bounty of table grapes, bell peppers, seedless watermelons and most of the country’s dates. Island-paradise palms spring mirage-like from the hot, arid soil.
This Coachella, unvisited by hipsters who attend a yearly music festival in the valley, is one of the poorest, densest areas of the United States—especially during grape season, when an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 migrant workers pour into already crowded quarters, sleeping in fields, alongside irrigation ditches or on swatches of cardboard in the dirt parking lot of Leon’s Market in Mecca.
The vinyl floors of their disintegrating trailer, which they rent, are dimpled with moisture. Plywood covers holes where windows once were, affixed with duct tape to walls in a slow state of collapse. Rats are a constant presence; sometimes, frogs make their way through the pipes. An extension cord leads from a single light bulb hanging from the bedroom ceiling to a socket with exposed wires.
“Sometimes, the niños shock themselves and scream,” Israel Gutierrez said.
In the tumbledown warrens of America’s pre-fab favelas—California’s Third World—the 20th century is a dim memory. Basic needs like potable water, safe and reliable electricity, rudimentary sanitation, and clean air can go unmet. Darryl Adams, the Coachella Valley Unified School District superintendent, who took over last year, visited some of his young charges recently in 115-degree heat. “These children were splashing around in little portable pools getting infections from unclean water,” Adams said.
“This is the Golden State, the great state,” he said. “I had no idea.”
“We are like a small country within the United States,” said Eduardo Guevara, a coordinator of Promotores Comunitarios del Desierto, one of a small but growing number of citizen groups working to improve the trailer parks.
In recent months, this small, isolated country has received national attention, with visits by U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and activist Erin Brockovich.
Earlier this year, dozens of residents, including teachers and schoolchildren, were sickened by noxious odors emanating from a four-story-high mesa of hazardous waste operated by Western Environmental Inc., a Utah-based soil recycling company that leases land from the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.
The devil’s palette of stenches was overwhelming, residents say, shifting from gas fumes to the smell of burnt oil to ruptured sewer pipes. The symptoms of “Toxico Mecca,” as it became known locally, included nausea, vomiting, dizziness and difficulty breathing.
“At first, we thought it was the Salton Sea,” said Isabel Galvez, a yard supervisor at Mecca Elementary School, referring to the scent of dead fish baked in fetid air at the valley’s northern edge. “But it was the site.”
The valley long has been a go-to toxic dumping ground, particularly on tribal land—a crazy quilt of jurisdictions scattered throughout the region. Among the most notable have been the Lawson Dump, on a Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians allotment, where hellish subterranean fires smoldered beneath millions of tons of burned waste (it was shut down by a federal judge in 2006). Down the road are remains of the state’s largest pile of garbage, nicknamed Mount San Diego by locals and closed by federal order in 1994.
At Western Environmental, the lack of state hazardous waste permits has come under public scrutiny. During a peak period in 2009-10, more than 10,000 shipments, most of it dirt contaminated with oil, gasoline and other hydrocarbons that emit fumes, were trucked to the plant along with sewage sludge, pesticides and other chemicals.
In May, after public outcry, Boxer, chairwoman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, held a brief press conference at the school where dozens were sickened. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the company to stop receiving hazardous waste. In August, California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control acknowledged it had failed for at least seven years to stop hazardous waste from being shipped to the plant and vowed to make improvements over how it monitors the area.
1 2 3 4 NEXT PAGE >>>
Previous item: Call of Duty: Veterans Join the 99 Percent
Next item: Romney and the South Carolina Conundrum
New and Improved Comments