MECCA, Calif. (AP) - 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.
For its part, the tribe wants to keep Western Environmental on its property but is wary about the state's recent demand that it enter into a cooperative agreement with the state to secure a hazardous waste permit for the company if the facility itself doesn't comply. Tribal Chairman David Roosevelt said such an agreement could mean waiving some of the tribe's right to self-government and set a precedent that could erode the rights of other California tribes.
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.
Officials from Western Environmental did not return calls seeking comment. An attorney representing the company did not return a call or email from The Associated Press. Company representatives have said in the past that they meet federal guidelines for hazardous material, which are less strict than California's, and are in compliance with EPA rules.
Despite the regulatory crackdown, many worry that the stench will come back once outside attention is no longer focused on Mecca, a poor, working class community southeast of Los Angeles that relies heavily on migrants to work the fertile fields of the irrigated Coachella Valley.
Residents say they can still detect a stench from the 40-foot pile of untreated dirt just off a local road. Some children are still suffering coughs, nosebleeds and other complaints, parents said.
"I can't breathe in my own house and my kids are sick," said Jacqueline Boulle, whose says her 8- and 10-year-old daughters have suffered nosebleeds, coughs, headaches and stomach woes from the bad air. "It's not something that you can just walk away from or go in your house and close the door and say, "It's not going to be in here, we're going to be fine' because it is in our house now."
State and federal regulators so far haven't found any sign of significant toxins in the soil or air around the site, but have used a variety of avenues to crack down on Western Environmental over the stench despite lingering questions about tribal jurisdiction.
The South Coast Air Quality Management District earlier this month issued a violation against the company for "nuisance odor" because the smell, while generated on Cabazon property, has drifted into the surrounding community.
The agency can impose fines and, if it's rebuffed, can file a civil lawsuit against Western, said Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the district.
In the meantime, the EPA issued an order that essentially shuts down Western Environmental in the short run and requires it to make a number of fixes by the end of the month to mitigate the stench. The state's Department of Toxic Substances Control believes the facility, although on tribal land, must still obtain a permit to accept material that qualifies as hazardous waste under state law.
The department has notified shippers that Western Environmental has been accepting waste illegally and told them to stop sending trucks to the site.
Regulators aren't sure what precipitated the spike in the stench in the past six to eight months, said Jim Marxen, a spokesman for the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control.
"They were accepting so many different kinds of waste, some regulated by us and some regulated by other people," he said. "We don't know what is on that site."
In an e-mailed response to questions, tribal chairman Roosevelt said Western Environmental began two new operations in the past six months: establishing an open-air separation pond for oil and water and processing soy whey, which has a reputation for being incredibly stinky.
Western Environmental agreed to stop both those operations after the community outcry, and the stench diminished, residents and regulators agree.
Meanwhile, residents in Mecca are watching and waiting, hoping that the solution won't end there and the piles of waste will vanish along with the overpowering stench that has lingered for months.
"It's the wrong place for it, regardless of if it's on Indian land or not," said Darryl Adams, interim superintendent for the Coachella Valley Unified School District. "We will do whatever we have to do to protect our students and staff. We are not going to relent."