The Desert Sun just published an exhaustive investigation into the awful stench besieging the town of Mecca, a poverty-stricken community on the outskirts of the Coachella Valley. This is even more shocking considering that the Valley is home to the tourist spot Palm Springs, and plays host to a variety of national and international news-making events like Coachella Music Festival and Stagecoach (music), the BNP Paribas Open (tennis), and PGA Tour’s Humana Challenge (golf).
Executive editor Greg Burton wrote in Sunday’s editorial:
There is no greater calling in journalism than to demand accountability. When reporters press powerful people and institutions for answers, we all are beneficiaries. Government enacts positive reform, pocketbooks are protected, neighbors stop suffering.
When reporters dig for answers, they find people like Angelina Guillen. She and her husband, Aurelio Leon, and their two children built their dream home in Mecca only to be subjected to sickening odors from a nearby, loosely regulated waste recycler.
They couldn’t go outside to barbecue. The stench seeped into their home’s ventilation system. The failure of any agency to swiftly act made Guillen, Leon and their neighbors feel more like animals than humans.
“You feel like you don’t have worth,” Guillen told reporter Marcel Honoré.
As you’ll read today, Honoré’s investigation of the Western Environmental Inc. hazardous waste facility exposed gaps in state and federal enforcement of environmental law on tribal land.
It is the longest of reads, but it is worth delving into just to see how government collusion with businesses not only leads to massive violations of private property rights of individuals, but potentially endangering their health as well.
Here are some of the horror stories:
• Along with polluted soil, Western accepted 3,600 tons of untreated sewage sludge. The bulk of the sewage arrived in 2010 and 2011, the same period that the smells reported by neighbors intensified.
• Former workers claim they accidentally tore the heavy plastic lining beneath the plant as they operated earth-moving equipment, potentially allowing waste chemicals to seep into the ground and taint the groundwater.
• Former workers say they were sickened by odors on the job to the point of nausea, diarrhea and lightheadedness.
• The Los Angeles Unified School District cut its hazardous waste cleanup bill by $2 million by using Western, but also contributed to what workers described as an overflow of putrid soil piled four stories high in 2009.
• Former workers say the plant took in so much material it was impossible to treat it all.
Managing editor Jim Kelly said this regarding his newspaper’s efforts, “It’s clear from the responses of people in Sacramento, in the EPA, in Congress, that the attention we paid to the smell forced action. As a journalist, that’s the big payoff, helping people who don’t have a direct pipeline to power.”
As a student journalist, I do think that this is what is journalism is about: to shed light on injustices perpetuated by vested interests and prompt action to rectify wrongs. As someone with libertarian leanings, I could argue about the ethics of prompting government action, but in this case — at least, if we were to believe that government’s role is defend people’s private property rights — government enforcement of existing regulations would be a greater net benefit to society than allowing a powerful local corporation to continue to violate the private property rights of its neighbors.
Mecca’s Misery: ‘Unbearable’ stench overwhelms desert town
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 1: Saul Martinez Elementary School
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 2: Cabazon Band of Mission Indians
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 3: Western Environmental Inc.
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 4: Western Environmental workers
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 5: Neighbors feel trapped
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 6: Smell returns after winter break
Mecca’s Misery, Chapter 7: EPA, other agencies step in