DESERT SUN (Palm Springs, California)

April 8, 2009


Official: Duroville should be shut down despite "some" improvements

A trailer park the federal government is seeking to close for alleged fire and health dangers has undergone ``some'' improvements, a federal official testified today in a trial that could determine whether 2,000 or more migrant workers have to leave the park.

Jim Fletcher, superintendent of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Southern California Region, acknowledged that he had seen positive changes at the Desert Mobile Home Park in Thermal over the last year, but maintained the BIA's position is to have the facility known as ``Duroville'' shut down in 90 days.

``We've spent six years working with (park operator) Harvey Duro, trying to get the park in proper working order, and it hasn't happened,'' Fletcher said.

``But you can see there have been improvements?'' asked attorney Chandra Spencer, who represents tenants at the facility.

``Some,'' Fletcher replied.

Spencer presented photographs that Fletcher snapped during a driving tour of the park last week.

Many of the photos showed piles of wooden debris, fenced off from the roughly 300 single-wide trailers that occupy the 40-acre park, which is part of the Torres-Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indian Reservation. Other photos showed individual residences, most of them weather-beaten and in obvious disrepair.

Spencer pointed out a trailer where items, including car parts and a broken bicycle, were scattered outside. The attorney asked Fletcher whether he believed the trailer posed a health or safety hazard.

After Fletcher gave several meandering responses, U.S. District Court Judge Stephen G. Larson cautioned him to answer the question directly, and the witness said he couldn't see anything obviously hazardous.

Spencer also asked the BIA official about tests conducted at the park in late 2007 to find out whether Duroville's drinking water was polluted with E. coli or other pathogens.

Fletcher testified that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported one test showed an abnormally high level of arsenic in the water, but there was no confirmation of the presence of pollutants.

The BIA reached an agreement with Duro in 2004 to suspend legal action against him then if he improved conditions at the park. But Duro, who had never obtained a BIA-approved lease to operate the facility, failed to meet the agency's expectations, according to court papers.

In October 2007, the U.S. Attorney's Office filed another lawsuit on behalf of the BIA, seeking to have Duroville declared an illegal commercial operation and public nuisance, arguing a series of fires at the migrant camp -- as well as gas, sewage and electrical problems -- warranted immediate closure.

Larson commissioned a study to ascertain the park's viability, and when the study group reported the facility could be salvaged, the judge ruled against immediate closure. Duro was instead given four months to obtain engineering studies, establish a business plan and make modifications as part of an agreement to leave the facility open.

Two months later, in July 2008, Duro had failed to comply with most of Larson's instructions, prompting him to appoint the Duroville Renaissance Corp. -- a nonprofit entity set up specifically to rehabilitate the park -- to take over its management.

Larson removed Duro from an executive capacity at the park in December, denying him his $7,000 a month salary.

Under the DRC, car repair shops and other commercial operations that conflicted with the park's residential character have been evicted. Some of the park's roads and gates have been modified to better accommodate fire engines and other public safety equipment, according to DRC spokesman and park manager Tom Flynn.

Sewage canals have been cleared of obstructions, and wooden additions built onto some of the trailers have been torn down, resulting in the piles of debris Fletcher photographed, Flynn said.

Between 2,000 and 5,000 illegal immigrant workers and their families reside at the park, with occupancy going up and down depending on the season.

Most of the 300-plus trailers there are more than 50 years old, according to Flynn.

Several fires have broken out in the last year, destroying a handful of travel coaches but causing no serious injuries.

Three smaller mobile home parks are located within a half-mile of Duroville, and like Duro's facility, none of them have BIA-approved leases, Fletcher testified.

He said none of the other facilities are in the same dilapidated condition as Duroville.

There is no jury hearing evidence in the trial, and Larson could decide eventual closure of Duroville is necessary, or choose another means to remedy the fact that the park exists on Indian land without BIA approval.

The trial is expected to wrap up early next week.