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By Joseph Tsidulko
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The authority’s complaint also names Witco Corporation as a defendant. Witco owned and operated a metal-finishing facility next to the William Mead playground from 1948 to 1994. According to the lawsuit, the metal company’s own environmental tests, conducted from 1990 to 1995, found carcinogenic substances in the soil. Years of chemical runoffs at Witco caused hazardous substances to migrate to the housing project’s playground, the lawsuit contends.
Witco failed to return several phone calls seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The first tests commissioned by the Housing Authority, in 1994, found evidence of residual toxic-waste products under William Mead, according to documents obtained by the L.A. Weekly. Later research conducted under the supervision of state toxicologists determined that residents could be at risk through long-term skin contact, accidentally eating soil particles, breathing oil particles and drinking breast milk from exposed mothers. A 1997 fact sheet drawn up by the Housing Authority for residents stated that “exposure to large amounts of contaminants over a long period of time may pose a higher-than-normal risk of cancer.”
“There are very high levels of PAHs in the subsurface of the soil,” Klein said. “If those soils came up to the surface, or if the resident had some means of being exposed to those PAHs, the risks of contracting cancer could be very high.
“However,” Klein added, “the key is, yes those chemicals are there, but they are not there in a situation that one’s easily being exposed to.”
The highest danger lies in homegrown foods. State toxicologists first conducted a preliminary endangerment assessment (PEA) of William Mead in 1995. A short time later, residents were told not to eat homegrown foods in the affected areas. In 1996, a fence went up around the playground, and residents were warned to stay away.
For decades, said a former resident of the project, many of the unsuspecting inhabitants of William Mead ate foods home-grown in contaminated soil.
Herbs, spices, and vegetables such as cilantro, chayotes and several kinds of chilis, were grown in small yards. City officials reacted by putting fresh soil in the affected areas, greatly reducing the chances of exposure to contamination, Klein said. “Unfortunately,” she added, “the department can’t do anything [about] past exposure. The department’s objective is to prevent future exposures.”
The housing project is not the only tainted site in the area. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is doing an assessment of its Tower Site, close to William Mead, said MTA spokesman Jose Ubaldo. The railroad tracks next to William Mead are also contaminated, Ubaldo said. The MTA bought the area from the Santa Fe line, which had acquired it from Burlington Northern. Now all parties are investigating who will be responsible for cleaning up the site.
“When we bought [the site], the property was already contaminated. The only thing we have done there is lay down the rails and turn [over] the rights to Metrolink, which uses the rails,” Ubaldo said. “For us, it’s ‘Who’s going to clean up the place?’”
One of the biggest questions posed by the toxic project is why it took so long to do anything about it. Diane Middleton served on the Housing Authority’s board of directors in the mid-1990s. She says she had trouble getting anyone to take the problem seriously.
“I remember that the Housing Authority staff sort of told us [there was] absolutely no problem. But I also remember that I asked lots of questions, and there were various studies done that raised questions with me,” Middleton said.
She remembers being inundated with plans and fact sheets about how the con- tamination would be fixed. But she still felt that a more careful investigation should have been done. When she pressed for it, she said, she was stonewalled.
“My impression was that whenever you have housing near an oil refinery and petroleum-storage tanks, any reasonable person would want an extraordinarily careful investigation to assess the public-health risks,” Middleton said. “I’m always suspicious of people who say, ‘I know your home is on a dump, but don’t worry!’”
Housing officials and other commissioners chastised her for asking too many questions and spending too much time during meetings on discussions about the housing project, she said.
“And of course, the ultimate critique is micromanagement. My thing was, ‘Wait a second! People could die because of this!’” Middleton said.
The Housing Authority’s executive director, Don Smith, defended his agency’s handling of the matter. He said the tests, along with other measures undertaken over the past few years, have been meticulous.
“I believe we satisfied [Middleton] in every respect,” Smith said. “We immediately kept the board informed, in writing, all the steps of the way.”
Smith denies that Middleton was stonewalled. He can’t recall that Middleton ever complained about how the William Mead contamination was being handled.
“Commissioner Middleton was on the committee that reviewed all of the actions each step of the way, and all of the contracts,” Smith said. “She voted for every single one of them. I’m sure she had concerns like I did and [that] she expressed those concerns.”