Graciela Zuniga and her two toddler boys suffer from asthma and bronchitis – conditions that are aggravated by all the dust kicked up by cars on the dirt roads of the trailer park they call home. “I get sick a lot, so do they. Everyone gets colds, and fevers too,” said Graciela.
The Zunigas can breathe easier now. Crews just finished paving the streets of their neighborhood, The La Pena Mobile Home Park in Mecca, Calif., a farming community 40 miles east of Palm Springs.
The Eastern Coachella Valley Mobile Home Paving Project will lay asphalt in 39 aging mobile home parks; a dozen have been completed so far. The project is a $4.1 million investment in the health of some of the poorest communities in the state.
The money comes from a pollution mitigation fund set up when the Sentinel Power plant came online in Desert Hot Springs a few years ago. County Supervisor John Benoit and State Senator V. Manuel Perez worked alongside the Riverside County Department of Transportation and the community group Pueblo Unido to secure the money from the Southern California Air Quality Management District (AQMD).
All told, about 4,000 people will now live in cleaner, healthier neighborhoods. Rodolfo Pinon from Pueblo Unido says this project has been in the works for two years.
“When there’s a lot of dust, it impacts the residents. They’re breathing all that dust. They have compromised health systems. It just worsens their respiratory conditions.”
He continued, “It has been an extreme, complete transformation of those communities. Now you can see young kids riding bikes and skateboards in the evenings. You don’t see all that dust anymore so the air quality has definitely improved. “
Cars tend to grind up the desert sand into tiny particles, so paving dirt roads is a known way to reduce the particulate matter (PM-10 and PM 2.5) in the air. Sam Atwood, spokesman for the AQMD, said, “Health studies have shown that the particles are so small, once you breathe them in your body doesn’t have a mechanism to expel them. With larger particles your mucus system would expel them.” So they lodge in the lungs and contribute to respiratory disease.
The AQMD measures air quality with two long-term permanent stations, in Palm Springs and Indio. In the past year they established two special purpose monitors, one in Desert Hot Springs downwind of the Sentinel Power Plant and the other in Mecca. The data show that PM-10 levels in the Coachella Valley do not exceed EPA standards, except during dust storms. The winds exceed 25 mph, however, about a third of the time. Atwood said the AQMD considers the dust problems in the trailer parks of the east valley to be a localized pollution source that is “significant and unhealthy.”
A 2013 report from researchers at UC Davis called “Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley” introduced a color-coded map of the area called the Cumulative Environmental Vulnerability Assessment (CEVA). The entire Mecca/Salton Sea area received the worst designation -marked in dark red, indicating the highest level of environmental pollution, which includes air quality.
The La Pena park’s owner, Paul La Pena, says he’s wanted to pave the roads for years, but he’d have to raise the rents quite a bit to cover the cost. “I wouldn’t be able to get it out of the people because they’re just farm laborers making minimum wage. I can’t charge them the same amount of rent like another mobile home park might on the other end of the valley, might charge. I can’t do that to these people.” Pena said he’s very happy that his park was chosen for the pavement project.
Phase two of the project is being bid out to contractors right now and should be finished by next spring. That phase will include Saint Anthony’s Mobile Home Park in Mecca, where Juan Sandoval lives with his wife and three young kids. Sandoval says it’s impossible to keep from breathing the super-fine dust. And, he says, the dirt roads turn into a river of mud when the weather is wet. “When it rains and the kids go to the school bus, they have to put plastic bags on their shoes because of all the mud. They arrive at school filthy. So it will be a really good thing to get pavement, above all for the kids.”
Crews are also laying drainpipes underneath the roads to create a drainage system.
Pueblo Unido acted as liaison between the Department of Transportation and the people who live in the trailer parks. The organization kept residents informed about construction plans and engineering, archeological and cultural reviews in each park. Crews preserved several 100-year-old adobe buildings. They also made sure to protect an old-growth stand of date palm trees brought from Algeria in 1918 – the first grove ever planted in the Coachella Valley.
Resident Jessica Melgoza said the new streets will make things easier on seniors and the disabled. “Now that they’re gonna put the pavement, it’s gonna be easier for them. The kids that have trouble with wheelchairs, their trailer’s gonna get improvements that go up toward their houses.”
Resident Briceida Zuniga said the pavement will improve the community’s health by cutting down on bugs that breed in standing water. “When it rains we get little ponds and lots of mosquitos. I worry about West Nile. So it’s very good that they’re putting in pavement. It will help a lot of people. “