By Jessica Garrison, Ben Poston and Kim Christensen
Reporting from Mecca, Calif.
Year after year the trucks rolled in, dumping loads of sewage sludge and contaminated dirt at a soil-recycling plant in this tiny desert community.
Thousands of deliveries were dutifully recorded in a state database. Anyone who checked it would have seen that the plant had no state permit to accept hazardous waste.
Yet the dumping went on for seven years — because state regulators either did not look at their own records or did not act on the information. The waste piles grew, rising 40 feet above the Coachella Valley floor. The stench worsened too.
Eventually, noxious odors swept over Saul Martinez Elementary School, more than a mile away. Children vomited. Teachers gasped for breath. Even then it took a storm of publicity and pressure from a U.S. senator before regulators stopped the dumping in 2011.
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