When there’s arsenic in the water, but ‘we have nowhere to go’

The Environmental Protection Agency found that the water in a mobile home park, which mostly serves agricultural workers, contained about 10 times the allowable limit for arsenic. But finding accommodation options is difficult.

Ana Fascio-Kreuzer And

Thermal, Calif. —Three times a week, Pascual Campos Ochoa, 26, loads a duffel bag with a brown wool blanket and a plastic container of oatmeal. A van picks him up from the dusty trailer park where he lives – where stray dogs roam among the carcasses of old cars and no working electricity – and drives him to a clinic for kidney dialysis.

Mr. Campos is the youngest person to need treatment at the Ochoa clinic; He has been on dialysis since the age of 18 and is waiting for a kidney donor.

Still, it wasn’t until recently, he said, that he believed his health problems could be linked to a trailer he’s shared with his family at Oasis Mobile Home Park for 16 years — and the arsenic in the water. High levels of contaminated water. It’s been spewing out of its old pipes for years.

Over the years, people living in the park, home to more than 1,000 residents in about 230 units, have suffered from a variety of health problems. They range from persistent rashes and hair loss to kidney disease such as Mr Campos Ochoa and even cancer – which residents and their advocates say may be caused by contaminated water.

In 2019, the United States Environmental Protection Agency found arsenic levels in the park’s water to be nearly 10 times higher than acceptable limits. Arsenic, which occurs naturally, has been linked to? that disease, as well as an array of other severe and chronic symptoms,

There has been no comprehensive study of the causes and extent of health issues in the oasis, and agricultural work consistently ranks among the most dangerous occupations in the country by most residents.

New management at the park said it has spent more than $400,000 since November to fix water problems – as well as more than $840,000 to provide alternative water. But residents are still being warned not to drink the water or use it for cooking, bathing or brushing their teeth. Government agencies, including the EPA and Riverside County as well as community advocates, all agreed that living conditions at the Oasis have been unsustainable.

And park residents say they’re stuck there—unable to find other homes they can afford in a county that has become a magnet for out-priced Californians from other parts of the state.

So even if a family moves out of the oasis, new tenants fill in the blank almost immediately.

“We have nowhere to go,” Pascual’s mother, 45-year-old Eudelia Ochoa Gutierrez, said in tears in Spanish.

The dilemma reflects the continuing plight of California’s largely immigrant farm workers and how the state’s housing crisis has become a health and safety emergency for even its most vulnerable residents.

And, like the major water contamination in Flint, Michigan, it’s an extreme example that many Americans can’t count on having clean, safe water.

A recent state audit found that in California, one of the nation’s richest states, nearly one million people lack clean drinking water. Most at risk are often farm workers, who are forced to live in substandard housing in isolated communities away from municipal water systems, often dependent on water from agricultural wells.

Due to its size and residents’ complaints about other health and hygiene issues, the oasis has been a magnet for attention. But dangerous levels of arsenic have been found in several smaller systems not connected to the regional Coachella Valley Water District’s water systems, according to the EPA.

A 2017 report by American Society of Civil Engineers Rated the country’s drinking water infrastructure “D” and said the United States needs to invest $1 trillion to upgrade water systems over the next 25 years.

For many years, residents who complained of strange smells or rashes after using the water were reassured that it was okay. But in 2019, the EPA ordered the park’s owner, Scott Lawson, to reduce arsenic levels to legal limits and provide free bottled drinking water in the meantime.

Two more orders, the latest in September 2021, said the park needed to fix water quality issues that “put residents at risk.”

Mark Mazda, the attorney representing Mr Lawson’s daughter Sophia Clark, who was appointed administrator of the park after her death last year, said Mrs Clarke has been working in good faith with the EPA since November and that she Certified water treatment is rented. strong.

A notice sent to residents said the level of arsenic in the water was close to or below the permissible limit from late May to July. Mr Mazda said the water from residents’ taps is now clean, and the water treatment system should provide clean water until the park achieves a long-term solution to connect the Coachella Valley Water District’s water system . But there are no plans for this to happen.

Mr Mazda said of Mrs Clark, “She has really made an effort here, and a successful attempt to change the issue.” “I’m not saying the park is the Four Seasons. It isn’t, but it has really made an effort to improve that park and water issue.”

But the notices sent to residents citing the improvements also included warnings not to drink, cook, bathe or brush their teeth from the park’s waters.

EPA spokeswoman Julia Giarmolio said improvements have been made but satisfactory laboratory tests have not been consistent. He said untreated water with high arsenic levels is still distributed into people’s homes and that various parts of the EPA order, which includes developing adequate plans to dismantle the system, have not been met. Until the park consistently shows satisfactory water-quality readings for one year, it will be necessary to provide bottled water to residents.

“The system is out of compliance,” she said.

Residents and their advocates say the solution is to find a safe place for residents to live, not to fix a site that compromises on too many levels.

United States Representative Raul Ruiz, who grew up in the area and lived in a trailer home as a child, said one solution should include relocating residents to preferential housing and building affordable housing.

Not only will strict enforcement be important to Oasis, he said, but, “it’s going to send a message to other unscrupulous mobile home park owners who aren’t allowed or who don’t comply with the EPA’s clean water orders, that it will no longer be tolerated.”

Mr. Lawson Torres Martinez was a member of the Desert Cahuilla Indians, as is Mrs. Clark. Because the park is on tribal land, local officials say the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs is effectively in charge of implementing the water quality directives, but community advocates, local leaders and new management say the agency has Haven’t taken any steps to help.

In a statement, the bureau said it was working with officials from other agencies and that the EPA was empowered to implement its order.

“BIA takes seriously its responsibility to administer lands held in trust for Indian tribes,” the statement said. “With multiple legal jurisdictions involved, this is a complex issue that requires cooperation and collaboration to resolve.”

Mrs Clark’s husband, James Clark, said the lack of progress was troubling. “It’s like no one is trying to help,” he said. “So we’re doing our best with limited funds and limited resources.”

Last year, the region’s state assembly member, Eduardo García, and the nonprofit Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability were among those who raised $30 million to help the county move residents out and build new affordable housing. helped in securing the state grant of But efforts to decide what to do with the money have been slow and controversial.

Many of the area’s mobile home parks have their roots in the era of California’s Bresero program, which brought Mexican workers to state farms during World War II.

Advocates say the county has not invested enough in planning or infrastructure to house the area’s farmworkers – many of whom are undecided and hesitant to speak about poor housing conditions.

At the same time, increasing numbers of Californians are moving to the vast desert east of Los Angeles, increasing the cost of housing there as well. The booming tourism industry of the Coachella Valley has compounded the problem.

For Leadership Counsel organizers like Omar Gastelum, who grew up in a park not far from the Oasis, the fact that families are living in unsafe conditions at the Oasis is exacerbated by the wave of luxury developments thriving in the area . The Thermal Club, a gated vacation home development that includes private auto-racing tracks, is only a 10-minute drive away.

Mr Gastelum’s colleague, Leslie Figueroa, pointed to a strip of land with striking mountain views to become an exclusive golf course.

County leaders, Ms Figueroa said, “have the upper hand when it comes to developers.” That said, they could require developers to pay impact fees that could help expand utilities to poorer communities nearby or include low-income housing in their plans.

But there is a sense of inevitability that conditions will persist. Officials and advocates agree that it will take years to provide affordable housing for California’s poorest workers and complete the necessary water and sewer upgrades.

Riverside County Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, representing the area, declined requests for an interview.

In a lengthy statement, he said the county is working with local, state and federal partners to expand clean water and build more housing.

“The housing and investment shortages date back to the recession, the lack of funds, and other priorities by the leaders of the time,” he said in the statement. “There are over 400 unapproved mobile home parks that I have inherited. This is a challenge that I and others will continue to work on.”

Riverside County Housing Officer Mike Walsh, whose work includes planning to make the best use of the $30 million grant, said relocating Oasis residents was a complicated game of musical chairs. He said that many families who lived behind him had left homes where the situation was worse.

“We are fighting against the tide,” he said.

Meanwhile, Resident Americans do their best to come to terms with the broken edges of life. Sometimes, against all odds, they end up achieving something else.

Earlier this year, Mrs. Torres and her husband, Luis Manuel Ortiz, went to buy Fernando a truck, an inexpensive thing to take to school. Instead, on impulse, he bought her his dream car, a 2020 Cherry Red Dodge Charger Scat Pack worth $59,000 that he doesn’t own.

Mrs. Torres put a $2,500 down payment on her Visa card. They do additional farm work when they can, but she has recently stopped working to care for Fernando, whose cancer has spread to his spine. She said that neither she nor her husband talks about bills with their son.

“What is important is that he is happy with his car,” said Mrs. Torres.

Fernando, an 11th grade student, keeps his car spotless, and parks it in the carport of his family’s mobile home.

Inside the car’s dark interior, a reddish-brown wreath with the image of a teenage boy hangs from the rear-view mirror.

Following Fernando’s kidney surgery last year, his grandmother introduced him to the story of St. Jose Luis Sanchez del Río, a 14-year-old boy who was killed for refusing to denounce Catholicism.

In his bedroom, Fernando also has a small statue of the teenage martyr, who died in 1928 and was ordained a saint in 2016.

On a recent afternoon, standing in his bedroom with Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright” playing in the background, Fernando talks about his patron saint and how he starts and ends his day with prayer .

“I pray to him before I go to sleep and when I go to school in my car,” Fernando said. “I tell him to take care of my health, take care of my family, my friends and my car.”

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