Digging, truth-telling is iSun investigative team’s mission

Our special report on Mecca in The Desert Sun is the culmination of months of analysis of documents obtained through The Freedom of Information Act and the Brown Act, of exhaustive interviews with dozens of sources and of first-hand observation by journalists devoted to a singular core mission: Truth.

There is no greater calling in journalism than to demand accountability. When reporters press powerful people and institutions for answers, we all are beneficiaries. Government enacts positive reform, pocketbooks are protected, neighbors stop suffering.

When reporters dig for answers, they find people like Angelina Guillen. She and her husband, Aurelio Leon, and their two children built their dream home in Mecca only to be subjected to sickening odors from a nearby, loosely regulated waste recycler.

They couldn’t go outside to barbecue. The stench seeped into their home’s ventilation system. The failure of any agency to swiftly act made Guillen, Leon and their neighbors feel more like animals than humans.

“You feel like you don’t have worth,” Guillen told reporter Marcel Honore.

As you’ll read, Honore’s investigation of the Western Environmental Inc. hazardous waste facility exposed gaps in state and federal enforcement of environmental law on tribal land.

The stories revealed how the Los Angeles Unified School District saved nearly $2 million by dumping 49,000 tons of soils laced with chemicals close to Mecca’s two schools.

And he described how Western Environmental, a company with an ownership trail leading to Kentucky, was able to outbid facilities licensed in California by avoiding taxes, regulatory fees and oversight.

There were complaints even before December 2010, when paramedics rushed to treat teachers and students at Saul Martinez Elementary School who were overcome by a foul odor.

But only after reporters, including Honore, began asking hard questions of officials in the spring of 2011, did the Environmental Protection Agency and the state hazardous waste control agency, with the help of the California Highway Patrol, stop trucks from carrying waste into Western.

“This was a big undertaking, but it was easy to throw myself into it,” said Honore, who has worked at The Desert Sun since 2006. His Spanish helped him conduct interviews with non-English speakers. “Mecca is one of the hardest-working communities in California, and I think the people there deserve better than what happened. I just wanted to do justice to the story, as best I could.”

The reporting was complicated by Western’s decision not to talk to us, said Managing Editor Jim Kelly, who directed and edited today’s report.

“This is one of these reporting projects where the more questions we ask, the more you can almost hear the people who were supposed to be overseeing this say, ‘Uh-oh,’ ” Kelly said. “It’s clear from the responses of people in Sacramento, in the EPA, in Congress, that the attention we paid to the smell forced action. As a journalist, that’s the big payoff, helping people who don’t have a direct pipeline to power.”

Our work doesn’t stop with this report.

We have launched a new watchdog initiative, a team of investigative reporters whose goal is to protect the people of the Coachella Valley from crime, corruption and incompetence. They’ll monitor how government spends money and evaluate the return on that investment. They’ll produce stories that illuminate issues of public concern: Education, energy, health, politics, safety and the environment.

While reporting their stories, the iSun team members will mine databases and public records for critical information. We’ll publish these documents and data sets on a new blog at MyDesert.com, http://isun.blogs.mydesert.com.

Bookmark that page, and stop by regularly to find updates on our investigative projects, databases, archives of our best work, chat with our iSun team, comment on their posts or share with your friends on Twitter and Facebook.

Our special report on Mecca and Western Environmental includes a database of the waste deliveries to Western Environmental obtained by Honore.

Also go there to meet the iSun team: Kelly, Honore, Keith Matheny, Erica Felci, K Kaufmann, Rebecca Walsh, Kate McGinty, Michelle Mitchell and Data and Business Editor James Meier.

iSun is one of many new initiatives at The Desert Sun and MyDesert. In the coming months, I’ll announce other projects and innovations that will enhance your experience with us and deepen our commitment to celebrating, and defending, the Coachella Valley.

Greg Burton is executive editor of The Desert Sun. Follow him on Twitter at @gburton and email him at greg.burton@thedesertsun.com.