Owners of Illegal Dump on Tribal Land to Pay More than $46 Million

The operators of a Coachella Valley (California) solid waste disposal site that caused fires and toxic smoke on and around the Torres Martinez Reservation have been ordered by a federal judge to pay more than $46 million to cover cleanup, fire-abatement and civil penalties related to the site.

After a four-year effort by federal officials, Judge Stephen G. Larson of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California ordered defendants Kim Lawson, Lawson Enterprises and Torlaw Realty Inc. to pay up to $42.8 million for cleanup costs at the reservation. Additionally, Larson ordered the defendants to pay a $2,362,000 civil penalty to the federal government (which equals $2,000 per day of violation) and $1.8 million to reimburse the Riverside County Fire Department, which responded to 20 fires at the dump in 2006 alone. Larson signed the final order on March 19, and the order became available on March 22.

"This legal victory makes it loud and clear -- open dumping on tribal lands is a crime," said Wayne Nastri, administrator of EPA's Pacific Southwest Region. "Open dumping is dangerous for human health and can lead to fires, exposure to mosquito-transmitted diseases, and the degradation of air, water and land resources."

From 1992 through 2006, Lawson operated a solid waste disposal facility on Torres Martinez Reservation land, where he openly burned waste up to 2003. The smoke from the waste fires affected approximately 5,600 students from surrounding elementary, middle and high schools, where students were restricted from open-air activities and suffered increased incidents of headaches and stomachaches. The Riverside County Fire Department responded to numerous fires at the dump, with one fire last year burning for two weeks. Nine firefighters were injured fighting these fires.

In August 2006, Larson ordered Kim Lawson and Lawson Enterprises to immediately stop all activities. On Aug. 9, 2006, the Bureau of Indian Affairs padlocked the site to prevent any additional dumping.

EPA and the Torres Martinez Tribe now have an active environmental program which has closed dumps, impounded vehicles caught dumping trash and conducted public outreach on dumping. The Torres Martinez Tribe also has the support of the Torres Martinez Collaborative, a team of federal, state and local agencies that helps clean up dumps and clamp down on illegal dumping at the Torres Martinez Reservation.

For more information, contact the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Central District of California at http://www.usdoj.gov/usao/cac/index.html.

This article originally appeared in the 03/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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