Feces Towers and Homelessness: Welcome to the Real Coachella In the Eastern Coachella Valley, Residents Are Struggling to Breathe
If you drive a few hours east from Los Angeles, on an I-10 route that slopes gently southward, you’ll find yourself in the Coachella Valley. Palm Springs, the famous movie star getaway, sits on the valley’s northwest edge, which is sparse if you don’t count its golf resorts and boutique hotels. And if you get off the 10 and follow the 86 farther southeast, even those luxuries trickle away, until you’re left with little more than dirt and gravel and chain restaurants.
Eventually you’ll hit the locales of Thousand Palms, Indio, and Coachella, which is the start of the Eastern Coachella Valley (ECV) and the city upon which hundreds of thousands of hipsters will descend this weekend for one of the world’s premiere music festivals. Most, if not all, of those hipsters will not venture beyond Coachella, and who can blame them? Because beyond that music festival is the rest of the ECV—Thermal and Mecca—and nobody wants to be there, least of all their residents.
At first glance, Thermal and Mecca look like places where a movie director would film if she wanted her setting to be “desolation.” At second glance, there’s not much more. Originally settled as camp towns for Union Pacific Railroad employees, Thermal and Mecca are now home mainly to the people who tend to the citrus and date crops in the area, and others who work in the restaurants and hotels that make the western Coachella Valley such a hot spot for tourists.
During the main growing season (which attracts migrant laborers) and the winter months (which attract out-of-town “snowbirds” longing for warm weather), the populations of Thermal and Mecca can double in size. But for the most part, they each house about several thousand regulars, the vast majority of whom are Latino and strikingly poor. The current population numbers are uncertain because of shoddy census data. Mecca is said to have about 5,600 residents, while “Thermal, California,” doesn’t even register on the census website.
The median income of Mecca is about $26,000, or about $36,000 less than the national median. This means there are a lot of foreclosed homes lining the region’s few cul-de-sacs, while many residents live in unofficial trailer parks—areas where people have amassed their vehicles in a sort of modern wagon circle, ignoring the local Riverside County occupancy permits and structure codes. Megan Beaman, a staff attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, says there are more than 100 “unpermitted” mobile home parks in Thermal and Mecca. “They were built without any building codes or standards and are in extremely uninhabitable conditions,” she writes in an email to me.
Still other ECV residents are living on the streets, especially from May to July, when migrant workers flood the area for grape-picking season. “Only about 80 beds of migrant housing are available in the area,” writes Beaman. “Everyone else is left to find their own housing, resulting in over-packing existing housing structures as well as a type of homelessness in which workers live out of their cars or under tarps.”
While the situation in the ECV is squalid no matter how you look at it, it goes from bad to worse when one considers the egregious environmental issues plaguing the region.
On Pierce Street sits the Lawson dump, once California’s largest illegal dump, and a place where the trash still stands stories high. Located on the Torres Martinez Indian Reservation, the dump operated for years before a court order shuttered it in 2006. Prior to that, the dump’s operators would burn huge loads of trash in order to make room for more, sending toxic smoke wafting into the surrounding trailer parks. Unsurprisingly, asthma is now a common affliction throughout Mecca and Thermal.
North and to the west of the Lawson dump sits Western Environmental Inc., a soil recycling plant that locals say emits a foul odor that can cause headaches. As of now, however, Western Environmental officials have been unable to pinpoint the cause of the odor, and Douglas McDaniel, a member of the Environmental Protection Agency’s air programs unite, reportedly told a meeting of community activists earlier this month that Western Environmental “does not look like they’re violating any federal rules.” In other words, his hands were tied.
Probably the most disgusting and offensive of all the environmental abuses in the ECV is something locals have begun calling “Mt. San Diego.” Far from a majestic rock formation, however, Mt. San Diego is instead a massive tower of human waste that was shuttled into the ECV from San Diego—hence the name—and dumped onto tribal land from 1989 until 1994, when a federal order put an end to the practice. According to witness testimonials, the mountain once stood about 50-feet high, but it’s diminished quite a bit. Still, residents say the heap of feces continues to emit a noxious odor in the hot desert wind, and it sits just a few miles away from the St. Anthony Mobile Home Park.
Interestingly, the EPA now lists Mt. San Diego as being one of its “major accomplishments” in the area, boasting “[The California Integrated Waste Management Board] completed its cleanup of the Mt. San Diego Dump site in April 2007.”
Beaman says that’s bogus. “If you ever see it you will see it is still enormous and still very much a problem,” she writes. “Residents also report that they believe dumping has recently started again. I have no logical explanation other than the EPA is not properly monitoring and/or is out of touch with isolated communities such as ours.” Beaman even says McDaniel, the EPA representative who recently toured Mecca, was “astonished” by the sight of Mt. San Diego.
Margarita Luna, a program manager with the California Endowment, which promotes improvements in the health status of individuals in underserved communities, adds that the waste mound is still very detrimental to public health. “[Residents experience] mainly asthma and other respiratory illnesses,” she writes me in an email, “both due to the inhalation of smoke from the Lawson Dump as well as dried raw sewage from Mt. San Diego blown into the air of neighboring communities.”
Further calling into question the EPA’s assessment, Marcel Honoré, a reporter for the Desert Sun newspaper, wrote in a March 10, 2011, article that Mt. San Diego resembles “massive piles of human-waste sludge.”
Asked why the EPA might list as a success something about which so many people are still complaining, Francisco Arcaute, a spokesperson for the EPA, wrote in an email, “There is no visible pile at Mount San Diego, the site has been stabilized, which is why it is considered a success story.” He also added, “Mr. McDaniel was not part of the Mount San Diego decision making process; it is unfortunate he is allegedly quoted as such.”
For its part, the California Endowment has been funding a number of California community projects through its Building Healthy Communities program, and it recently gave a below-market-rate loan of $750,000 to the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition to fund pre-development portions of community development efforts in the area. But there's lots more work to be done.
This weekend, as thousands of wealthy people line up to enjoy music at Coachella, just miles away, groups like the California Rural Legal Assistance will continue struggling with bureaucratic agencies to try and win some justice for the ECV residents, who Beaman believes are victims of outright racism.
“As in other parts of the state and country,” she says, “we believe that racism—structural or otherwise—contributes to the fact that these hazards are permitted to exist or endure despite the thousands of families that suffer as a result. The Western Coachella Valley is largely white and very affluent; the juxtaposition is striking."
Update: The original version of this article included a typo that referred to "the 88" rather than "the 86."