“Polanco” mobile home parks in the eastern Coachella Valley are home to numerous underserved Latino families—and threats to those residents’ health and safety can be found throughout these communities.

One of the worst offenders has been the Oasis Mobile Home Park, in Thermal, owned by Scott Lawson and his daughter Sabrina, who are members of the Torres Martinez Desert Cahuilla Indians tribe. On Jan. 21, a community association called Juntos por un Mejor Oasis, along with 22 individual residents, joined together as plaintiffs in a civil lawsuit attempting to force the owners of the park to rectify the serious problems there.

“We started getting involved with, and working alongside, residents of the Oasis Mobile Home Park right after August of 2019,” said Michael Claiborne, a directing attorney with the Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability (LCJA), who is representing the residents in the case.

It was around that time that the federal government stepped in due to the dangerous drinking-water supply at the park.

“The United States (Environmental Protection Agency) issued an emergency administrative order related to arsenic contamination at the park,” Claiborne said during a recent interview.

Although the LCJA had not worked with Oasis residents before that order was issued, they had worked with residents living in similar parks in the area.

“So when we heard about the arsenic issue, we started holding community meetings with folks at the park and hearing their concerns that went far beyond just the drinking water problems—issues like mobile homes that are 60 years old, falling apart and aren’t really safely habitable; sewage pooling throughout the park; very high energy bills that don’t look legitimate to folks; and also power and water shutoffs, especially during the hottest part of the year,” Claiborne said.

Last year, the conflict between Oasis residents and the owners reached a boiling point. In September 2020, the EPA issued a second emergency order directing the Lawsons to correct the arsenic contamination, which was threatening the health of park residents.

“We (at the LCJA) sent a letter to the owner of the park in September 2020, asking for improvements in conditions,” Claiborne said. “Less than 24 hours later, federal immigration enforcement (officers) were driving through the park, honking (their car horns). While in the end, they didn’t pick up any residents, we interpreted that as a response to our letter based on perceived immigration status. So, that was a turning point for (Oasis residents), I think. Before that, they thought that, potentially, we could work with ownership. But after that incident, they no longer saw that potential. Also, we never got any other response to that letter.”

As of this writing, the lawsuit filing has not elicited any response from the Lawsons, either. It turns out there is a good reason for that.

“Despite our diligent efforts, we have not served the defendant,” Claiborne said. “It appears that he’s trying to avoid service, and the time to respond in a lawsuit like this one is triggered after the service is processed, so we won’t get a response until we effectuate service. We expect that will happen soon, but it hasn’t happened yet.”

Attempts by the Independent to reach the Lawsons for comment were not successful as of this writing.

Claiborne and his colleagues at the LCJA are working to create an alliance of interests who can succeed in improving the plight of the people who live at the Oasis Mobile Home Park.

Michael Claiborne, Leadership Counsel for Justice and Accountability: “Ultimately, the residents want to see the park shut down. They don’t think this owner is a good actor. What they’re asking for is the development of affordable housing in the area, and relocation assistance.”

“I would just emphasize how awful this situation is,” Claiborne said. “It really is a humanitarian crisis, in my view, and it requires urgent action. Again, in my view, projects like this, and solutions that are this difficult, are only achieved through collaboration between elected officials and agencies at the state and local level. So, that’s what we’re looking for here.”

Among the collaborators Claiborne is calling upon is Castulo Estrada, a board director of the Coachella Valley Water District (CVWD), and Riverside County District 4 Supervisor V. Manuel Perez, both of whom spoke with the Independent regarding the long-running human tragedy.

The water district’s involvement goes back to the initial emergency order issued by the EPA in August 2019. At that time, the owners were directed to provide alternative, reliable sources of clean drinking water to all Oasis residents while the water-system issues were rectified. However, when that did not happen, the CVWD and Riverside County stepped in.

“At that time,” Estrada said, “the county and the CVWD joined forces to send a water tanker out there, so that the folks could obtain clean potable drinking water, at no cost to themselves. Both the CVWD and the county put together budgets for their share of that effort. When we went in there, it was with the understanding that (this support would be needed) for only about four weeks, but it actually ended up continuing for about six months.”

The Oasis Mobile Home Park’s drinking-water supply fell out of compliance again within months, and that second emergency order was issued. Now, the CVWD and the county are focusing their attention on a bigger-picture strategy to deliver a permanent solution to the drinking water cleanup.

“There is a project that has been identified, and there is some momentum behind installing a water line on Avenue 70 that would run (past the Oasis Mobile Home Park), from Harrison Street all the way to Pierce Street, which is about a mile of pipeline,” Estrada said. “Through a public/private partnership, there’s been $250,000 in funding secured already for the design and the environmental work, basically to get the project shovel-ready, which is in itself a big task. Now, it’s really about how we get the easements, and one of the first hurdles we face is whether or not the property owner is even willing to provide the easements. Without them, the project would not even be possible. So we’re working on all of this—and that’s good news.”

Estrada noted that another positive development has been the creation of a working group to promote relevant proposals within various state and local government.

Castulo Estrada, of the Coachella Valley Water District: “We need to move these families out of (Oasis), but there is no housing—so we need to create the housing.”

“It’s comprised of the CVWD, various departments from Riverside County, the supervisor’s office, myself, the assemblymember’s office (Eduardo Garcia), and, actually, the property owner himself has joined with this working group for purposes of accomplishing this project,” Estrada said. “There is some indication that he wants to consolidate (into the water district’s water system), and that is exactly what the EPA wants him to do. But they don’t have a way to force him to do it.”

The working group doesn’t have the power to force any action, either—and the problems at Oasis go well beyond the drinking water. However, the residents there really don’t have anywhere else to go, due to a lack of affordable housing in the area. Toward that end, Estrada said he, Perez and Garcia, among others, are working on a proposal to request $30 million in state funding for targeted affordable-housing development in the eastern Coachella Valley.

“That’s really the driver. We need to move these families out of (Oasis), but there is no housing—so we need to create the housing,” Estrada said. “There are already some affordable-housing developers out there that have existing projects that are in different stages (of development). We know that there are infrastructure needs that, perhaps, don’t allow those projects to materialize. But if we can get $30 million, then … we’d use maybe $5 million for sewer, $5 million for water, and $10 million for the onsite costs, etc. If we find a project that needs $30 million, and that project is real, then that’s the project we want to focus on.”

An issue complicating things is the tangle of land ownership and access-rights issues created by the myriad landowners.

“There are many (mobile home parks) like that at the east end of the valley,” with many different owners, Perez said. “That’s what makes this even more difficult—and that’s why we need federal intervention. That’s why we need the (Bureau of Indian Affairs), the EPA and our congressional office (of Dr. Raul Ruiz) office to be engaged, because we have no jurisdiction.

“There are a lot of competing interests, and obviously it requires a lot of methodical thinking as to how to approach all these nuances that are playing out all at once. At the end of the day, I just try to make sure that I do the right thing and meet the people’s needs.”

Claiborne said the residents at the Oasis Mobile Home Park don’t think investing public funds into the park is a good idea.

“They don’t trust ownership to make improvements in the park—and the water issue, while urgent and critical, is only one of the issues they are facing,” Claiborne said. “So while extending out service from the CVWD would go a long way toward addressing some of their water problems, it wouldn’t necessarily solve all of them. We’ve been told by the U.S. EPA that the arsenic has actually coated the inside of the pipes in the park’s water-distribution system, and potentially in the park’s mobile homes as well. So it’s a really unique situation.

“Ultimately, the residents want to see the park shut down. They don’t think this owner is a good actor. What they’re asking for is the development of affordable housing in the area, and relocation assistance.”

Perez expressed optimism that help could soon be on the way.

“Now, the political will is there,” he said. “It wasn’t there 10, or 20 or 30 years ago. (The infrastructure efforts) you see going on right now have never been accomplished, because in my opinion, there was never the will to do so. People can go ahead and say, ‘Conditions are terrible.’ Well, we’ve known that. So what’s the solution, and how are you going to pay for it? I’m very proud of the fact that we have this working group. I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve already been able to move about 20 to 30 families into Mountain View Estates (a new affordable housing community in Thermal), and we’re going to be moving more over the course of the next month. Obviously, we’ve already identified sites for more affordable housing.

“There are philanthropists who are willing to be helpful on that main (CVWD water) line along Avenue 70, in front of the Oasis Mobile Home Park and seven other Polanco parks as well. So that means maybe all of those (communities) can be connected, which would help about 1,000 families. There’s land on Avenue 66, across the street from A&P, that we’re working on (acquiring) right now with the (H.N. and Frances C.) Berger Foundation, and that’s got huge potential. You have Coachella doing affordable housing. … We have another development that we’re working on … that will bring in more folks as well, and we’re working on that with the Coachella Valley Housing Coalition. So, there’s just a lot going on.”

“Ultimately, all of these efforts (are happening now because of) the political will. Our will that comes from the heart. We grew up here. This is not just because we have to, or because there’s political pressure. … My dad grew up in Oasis when he moved from Mexico, so this is coming from the heart. We’ve got to work together. We’ve got to work together.”

Residents gather at the water-tanker truck, carrying fresh drinking water, after the EPA ordered the park’s water system shut down due to high levels of arsenic. The water was provided free of charge by Riverside County and the Coachella Valley Water District. Photo courtesy of CVWD
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Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...