Riverside County declares emergency over toxic dumpsite leak

Riverside County officials declared a local emergency Tuesday in response to flooding and leakage of unknown materials from a toxic dumpsite.

Officials said flash flooding on Sept. 1 had caused a breach of the retaining berm at the Lawson Dumpsite on Torres Martinez tribal land near Thermal.

On Saturday, the leakage prompted evacuation warnings for three mobile home parks — the San Jose, Vargas, and Gamez communities.

“The Lawson Dump is considered to be the largest toxic dump in California and continues to threaten our communities,” said Riverside County Fourth District Supervisor, V. Manuel Perez. “This is a public health emergency in addition to the flash flooding damage that was worse for the eastern Coachella Valley than Hurricane Hilary.

  • From left: Aerial photo of Lawson Dumpsite in 2007 (Google Earth); Fires from Lawson regularly affected the residents of the nearby trailer park. (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • The judge's order has put an end to illegal disposal at the Lawson Dumpsite, such as this load of hazardous treated wood waste. (Environmental Protection Agency)
  • A local emergency was declared after flash flooding had caused a breach of the retaining berm at the Lawson Dumpsite on Torres Martinez tribal land near Thermal on Sept. 1, 2023. (Riverside County)

Residents are advised to avoid all contact with rainwater and runoff until further notice. Water testing will determine whether additional precautions may be necessary, officials said.

County teams from fire, sheriff, environmental health, public health, transportation, flood, public social services, housing and emergency management are responding to the incident. Officials are working to test the materials and assess the community for health impacts.

The dump site was shut down in 2007 following years of environmental concerns from federal officials.

In 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency issued a notice of violation to the owner, Lawson Brother’s Enterprises, that went ignored.

In 2003, the EPA ordered the owners to stop the facility from burning solid waste. Officials said the site was in violation of a federal law banning open burning in the area.

The Torres-Martinez Band of Cahuilla Mission Indians of California began air monitoring for particulate matter along tribal borders and readings were above levels considered safe for human health and the environment.

“Between 1992 – 2006, the Lawsons ran a controversial solid waste firm on Torres Martinez land, openly burning waste between 1992 and 2000,” the EPA said. “Between 2002 and 2005, the Riverside County Fire Department responded to 25 fires at the site; in 2006, they responded to 20 fires, with one fire burning up to two weeks.”

The smoke from the dump site’s open waste fires affected approximately 5,600 students from surrounding elementary, middle and high schools, restricting open-air activities among the school children.

In 2015, following a refusal to comply with orders and after years of legal efforts, Kim Lawson, Lawson Enterprises, and Torlaw Realty, Inc., were fined up to $42.8 million in cleanup costs.

The defendants were also ordered to pay $2,362,000 in civil penalties which amounted to $2,000 per day of violation.

Following the retaining berm breach over the weekend, officials are now asking for federal assistance. The dump site, although ordered closed, was never officially cleaned up.

“There are many concerns as the county team has been working on this, and we are going to need the federal government and the state to help our communities,” Perez said.

A shelter for evacuated residents has been set up at the Galilee Center in Mecca.

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