Students at Saul Martinez Elementary School had just piled in from recess when the principal began to field alarming calls: a powerful, propane-like stench had swept over the school grounds and was bringing children and teachers alike to their knees.
By the time it was over, as many as 40 people had been treated by paramedics for headaches, nausea, dizziness and asthma attacks.
During the coming months, state air quality regulators would field more than 200 additional complaints about the “rotten egg” fumes overtaking this dusty agricultural community at the northern tip of the Salton Sea and tracked the smell to a soil recycling facility that leases tribal land less than two miles from the school.
Authorities responded in force: Federal environmental regulators ordered Western Environmental, Inc., to temporarily stop operating, local air quality officials slapped it with a violation and the state began checking trucks entering the site for hazardous materials. The director of the state environmental agency called ending the odor the No. 1 priority.
But despite the speedy action, the case echoes several recent instances where state and local officials have struggled to deal with squalid migrant housing encampments on tribal land and raises similar questions: How far can the state go when regulating a business on Indian land and how can tribal officials cooperate without ceding their sovereignty?
Western Environmental, which is not tribally owned, has been operating on the reservation for seven years without a state permit, but didn’t attract the attention of authorities until complaints began last year. In part, this is because state agencies have little jurisdiction on tribal lands. The company holds a 20-year lease from the Cabazon Band of Mission Indians.
Western Environmental, Inc. opened in 2004 and treats and recycles dirt laced with petroleum, heavy metals and other chemicals that qualify as hazardous materials in California, where rules are stricter than at the federal level. It ramped up its operations dramatically in 2009, increasing the amount of hazardous waste it accepted there by more than tenfold to more than 113,000 tons from construction sites and brownfields across the state, according to state data.