A Mecca for toxic waste

An Indian reservation soil recycling plant became the destination of thousands of illegal shipments of toxic soils that school districts, the military and several companies in Southern California needed to unload -- all with a nod from the state environmental officials as people became ill.


  1. Mecca is a small, farming, mostly Spanish-speaking community just north of the Salton Sea in California's Coachella Valley.  I first went there in February, 2011, to report on the chemical odors there that were so strong that school children had to be hospitalized. I also attended a packed community meeting.
  2. I then dug deeper. 

    I learned that the state kept a database of truck shipments of toxic waste and I purchased the records for over 10,000 shipments to the Mecca facility made over a two year period. I found that the customers included school districts, transportation agencies, counties, cities, the military, and several companies that needed to get rid of contaminated dirt. Most often it was dug up from old industrial sites in preparation for new construction.  State law required that such material to be taken to state-approved facilities. The reservation plant, however, was not state certified.

    When I presented my findings in a telephone interview with a top official with the state Department Toxic Substances Control, he acknowledged that the schools districts and other entities were violating state law, and he said his agency would investigate why its own officials had approved some of the shipments.

    Just hours later, the agency issued a ban of shipping California hazardous waste to the Mecca plant and began notifying the users of the facility.  I immediately reported this as breaking news:
  3.  My detailed investigative report ran a few days later:
  4. Environmental and farm worker advocacy groups demanded action:

  5.  Sen. Barbara Boxer demanded EPA action:

  6. The EPA acted by halting all types of shipments:

  7. State lawmakers held a hearing:
  8. Boxer teamed up with Erin Brockovich, but news of a state audit trumped the senator's announcement to seek new legislation:

  9. A half year after I first went Mecca, I finally received the roughly 1,500 pages of emails, letters and other records I had sought from the state Department of Toxic Substances Control under state public records law. They showed that state regulators were well aware of the illegal shipments for years but did nothing.

  10. The next day, the new DTSC director vowed, "It will never happen again"
  11. The plant has since reopened under new agreements with the tribe and local, state and federal regulators for cleaner operations. It can no longer take materials deemed hazardous under state law. 

    David Danelski can be reached at ddanelski@pe.com or 951-368-9471