By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov|
State toxicologists discovered in 1994 that the eastern part of William Mead Homes in Lincoln Heights was contaminated with toxics known to cause cancer in humans, according to documents obtained by the L.A. Weekly. In March, after years of studies and reports, L.A.’s Housing Authority (HACLA) will begin a $1.5 million cleanup of the site. Some 11,500 tons of soil will be removed, and six buildings will be temporarily closed, forcing 128 families to stay at hotels for up to five months.
State toxicologists have assured residents that the contamination currently poses no threat to them. Yet long-time residents fear they have been sickened by the decades-old contamination.
The housing project, which opened in 1943, sits on top of a former oil refinery. The site was also briefly used as a dump for hazardous wastes. Soil tests have found polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), byproducts of the oil-refining process known to cause cancer. The average level was 19 parts per million; the state considers a safe level to be one part per million.
“I think the residents really have every right to worry,” said Kimi Klein, the lead toxicologist conducting tests for the Department of Toxic Substances Control. “There are many people who have lived there many years. It’s not a transient population by any means. I’ve talked to people whose parents lived there. The potential is there that they may have been exposed to levels of contaminants that have affected their health adversely.”
Over the years, the Housing Authority tried several corrective measures before finally concluding the toxics problem called for a massive cleanup of the soil. Earlier steps included closing a playing field because of high concentrations of PAHs, and replenishing, with fresh soil, gardens used by residents to grow fruits and vegetables.
Home to more than 1,400 residents, many of them low-income Latino and Vietnamese families, the housing proj- ect has long been a fixture of Eastside life, a haven for immigrant families who see the low rents and the benefits of public housing as a real break. Massive brick buildings, wedged between factory buildings and railroad tracks, make up the living quarters on the 15-acre site. Six of the buildings are believed to be tainted by the chemicals.
People call the projects “Dog Town,” for an animal shelter that used to be there. It’s also the name of the current dominant street gang.
Many residents see the measures to fix their environment as too little, too late. They fear that they have been exposed to the contamination for decades, said Lucy Esquivel, a resident there for 32 years. Now in the terminal stages of ovarian cancer, she is convinced that the illness that may cause her death is linked to the tainted soil beneath the home in which she lived for decades.
It’s impossible to blame Esquivel’s illness or that of any other resident on the toxic project, Klein said. “There’s no way to tag a molecule and say this molecule is the reason that you are ill,” Klein said.
Esquivel and another resident suspect that the tainted soil has contributed to as many as two dozen cancer deaths over the years. Klein said such a theory is difficult, if not impossible, to prove and no such tracking study is under way.
Investigators believe that an oil refinery operating on the site in the early 1900s contaminated the soil, Klein said. Later, before the projects were built in 1943, more hazardous waste was disposed there. A good part of the soil east of Cardinal Street, which divides the eastern part of the proj- ects, is contaminated with cancer-causing PAHs, and arsenic and lead have been discovered in the eastern part of William Mead.
The contamination has prompted several lawsuits. The Housing Authority has taken action against two companies over their operations at the site, and the former manager of William Mead Homes has filed a suit claiming she was transferred because she complained that her bosses were too slow to react to the problem.
The authority “was not doing anything about the conditions, thereby subjecting residents to health hazards and potentially incurable diseased conditions brought on by exposure to said toxics,” said former manager Elke Rolfes in a July 1999 lawsuit.
Housing Authority officials say they first learned of possible contamination when a former resident, who lived there in the 1950s, wrote to them. The December 1993 letter described “a correlation between cancer-related deaths of both friends and family members to playground utilization as children,” according to authority documents.
In 1994, the authority hired a private firm, Camp, Dresser and McKee, to conduct tests. The researchers found that the projects were built on property that had once belonged to Amalgamated Oil Company, which is now owned by Texaco Refining and Marketing Inc.
From 1900 to 1923, Amalgamated had four 35,000-barrel oil tanks at what is now William Mead. According to the Housing Authority’s lawsuit, Amalgamated disposed of hazardous and carcinogenic substances there. Texaco spokesman Paul Weeditz said the lawsuit has been put on hold while his company and the Housing Authority try to reach an agreement.