Each of us produces an average of 100 tons of solid waste in our lifetimes, which “dies” in landfills that, in many of our minds, are very far away. But more and more of that waste, including the hazardous kind, ships out to poor and rural desert areas that aren’t as distant as we’d imagine, and next door to where people actually live. KPCC reporter Ruxandra Guidi has produced a three-part radio series that looks at illegal dumps in the Coachella Valley, an expanding landfill near Salton Sea that will exponentially increase truck traffic, and the development in Imperial County of the nation’s largest landfill, where several Southern California cities will send their trash. In conjunction with her reports, Guidi has been moderating “Talking Trash”, a two-part live forum series that invites the public to discuss garbage: where it goes and why, and how its impact extends beyond our personal bins.
The first in the series took place on Thursday, June 7th, 2012 at the Boys & Girls Club of Mecca in Mecca, California.
Part One: Mecca, Coachella Valley
Illegal dumpsites in the Coachella Valley, whether along Mecca’s 66th Avenue or in the surrounding area, have a deep impact on the surrounding community and its environment, health and economy. After six months of research, reporting, and travel to desert areas throughout Southern California, KPCC's Ruxandra Guidi says she's grown increasingly interested in the Southland's expanding trash problems. Needless to say, the more she learned about the business, health and environmental impacts of waste, the more she says she's become aware that her stories are only part of a long and complicated history. "I cover immigration, actually, but I started reporting on this story about illegal dumps in Mecca about six months ago," she said as she introduced KPCC's first forum on trash. "I've been coming here numerous times, and I really found that it was a topic that a lot of folks here were talking about, but the big cities, but at least in L.A., people weren't aware of this, and they weren't discussing the connection between illegal dumps in East Coachella Valley and the trash that we get rid of in the big city." Conversation at KPCC's first "Talking Trash" forum focused on two long-running issues in the community: the prevalence of illegal dumps in tribal lands, and the disposal of hazardous waste near homes and schools. A large part of the story involved Western Environmental, a recycling plant taking in hazardous waste illegally. Aside from Luis Olmedo, a son of farm workers and environmental activist with Comite Civico del Desierto in nearby Imperial County, the forum featured Megan Beaman, an attorney working with California Rural Legal Assistance’s Migrant Farmworker Project, who agreed that the East Coachella Valley residents have been largely ignored when they raised concerns about the plant's health impact. "We are a desert in general, but people refer to us as a media dessert and resource desert as well," she started. "Specifically, we have community health clinics, but they're not identifying the connection between environmental hazards and health impacts. We have arsenic contamination in our drinking water, but the staff of the clinics don't have a process in place to say, 'Okay, this person came from this region, she may be experiencing these symptoms because she consumes contaminated water.' ... When it comes to the doctor visits, the data is not matching our communities." After the community discovered that Western Environmental waste disposal was receiving hazardous waste without a permit, two years passed before a report was released, stating that the waste was hazardous but not sufficiently toxic to affect public health. Eduardo Guevara doesn't believe it.. A community health worker who once lived next to one of Eastern Coachella Valley’s most notorious open-air dumps, Guevara said he's seen a growth in health problems over the past two years, including an increase in asthma, learning deficiencies, premature births, respiratory problems and skin rashes. He added that the community has a hard time believing their symptoms are not related to contamination from Western Environmental. "The general feeling here is that it's not logical. It's not possible that teachers, students, residents getting sick ... You don’t have to be a scientist to feel that something is not right. It's not only about the air. We've been asking over and over again about the water, the proximity of the apt complexes there. Sometimes we have strong winds in the area and the pile of dirt is out in the open, and we are downwind from them, and we must be breathing all that air that is escaping. We don't believe that everything is right. We demand visible action." Beaman summed up the sentiment of many present at the forum, saying the community has made progress but still has a long way to go. "Everything that has happened throughout this process has not all been negative. There have been many victories: The state stopped all shipments of hazardous waste, [there has been] some additional measures taken to reduce odor coming from the dump, to reduce the drift of materials on site. We have seen little victories, and those little victories continue to motivate us to know that other things are possible," she said. "But at the same time, we've also faced really substantial challenges and disappointments. Living in a community where people are fainting by breathing the air, or developing asthma, or not being able to breathe just through the air in their homes ... not being able to prove why." This was the first public forum on the topic of trash in this community, where an environmental justice movement is just beginning to take root. The KPCC discussion, held in both English and Spanish, welcomed questions from a diverse group of farm workers, activists, students, and concerned residents — all of whom were eager to find out how our back-to-back discussions in Mecca and Pasadena may lead to some answers and more public policy debates moving forward.
Don't miss Talking Trash: PART TWO when the Crawford Family Forum returned home to Pasadena.