By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Middleton, who resigned from the board in 1998, is not the only official who alleges running into problems when pressing for swifter action on William Mead. Elke Rolfes, who managed the housing project until 1996, alleges in her lawsuit that the Housing Authority transferred her because she raised concerns about contamination.
Smith said it is routine to transfer proj- ect managers. He would not comment further about Rolfes because of the lawsuit.
In that suit, Rolfes alleges her bosses got even with her for “protesting the failure to warn the residents of William Mead housing project of dangerous exposure to toxic waste . . . ”
A Housing Authority employee since 1975, Rolfes, 56, was well-liked by William Mead residents, said a former member of the Resident Advisory Council, who asked not to be named. But Rolfes alleges in her complaint that up until she was transferred from there, “Not enough was being done.”
Smith said the Housing Authority has gone out of its way to ensure a scrupulous evaluation of the contamination. More than $1 million has been spent addressing the problem. Over the years, meetings have been convened at William Mead to handle residents’ concerns and questions, Smith went on. State toxicologists have been on hand to respond to issues of health. Residents have been kept informed of the latest developments through letters.
During the meetings, residents complained about the dangers that the contaminated areas might pose, or had posed, to their health. They say they were told that as long as they didn’t eat homegrown foods and avoided the playground, they would be fine.
At one meeting, Esquivel recalled, Housing Authority officials downplayed the dangers. “I said, ‘How could you say that? We grew up here. We played back here [on the playground],’” Esquivel said. “They said, ‘That’s if you’ve been playing there for a long, long time.’ ‘That’s what I have just been telling you!’ We played baseball, basketball, and football. Of course it’s going to be harmful for us.”
In the Texaco and Witco lawsuit, Housing Authority officials acknowledge the health risks, and that the contaminated playground has been used by children for decades.
In 1997, William Mead became an experimental site, with housing officials across the country looking at its Welfare-to-Work program, which received considerable attention from the media. A Jobs-Plus site was developed and run in the community center, as well as a computer center and several other programs.
At the same time, HUD was pouring thousands of dollars destined to help poor William Mead residents attend a newly developed learning center, and the Housing Authority was spending thousands of dollars evaluating the contamination there.
Unable to climb the stairs of her two-story apartment because of her cancer, Esquivel recently had to be moved to a ground-level unit at a nearby government housing project. She still considers William Mead her home.
Esquivel has lived in the William Mead Homes since she was 8. She raised her five children there. She found meaning in doing volunteer work to make life better for others in the projects.
Though she lived in what many see as the bottom of the social strata, Esquivel was happy volunteering her time to help her neighbors through her community work. The proj ects were plagued by gangs and an often-dispiriting atmosphere, but they were her life.
Today, Esquivel is suffering because of forces within her body. Her once-lively countenance has given way to sunken eyes. Her head, not long ago topped by an abundant mane, is now covered with a knitted hat that hides the loss of her hair. And her body, which friends and neighbors remember as tireless in the pursuit of helping others, is wracked by pain.
Esquivel learned about her cancer two years ago and feels that all residents of William Mead should be tested for diseases that might be linked to the contaminated site.
Her experience evokes sympathy from Housing Authority Executive Director Smith. He said all residents have been offered free, transportation-paid visits to the doctor. So far, he said, no cases of cancer have been directly linked to the site.
“There was a particular period when they [residents] raised these issues. We encouraged them to do it, and if they had a claim, to file it,” Smith said.
Esquivel believes that she will die of cancer, just as her mother did two years ago. She fears that both of their illnesses are linked to the contamination at William Mead.
“Some of the ones who are living here right now have cancer. I know about 20-something people,” Esquivel said during a toy giveaway sponsored by City Councilman Nick Pacheco during a day of the Three Kings celebration at William Mead. “All of the ladies who used to live here have passed away because of cancer. That’s scary.”
While the city and corporations scramble over who will be responsible for cleaning up the area, some residents say that the danger the toxics pose to their health has been forgotten. Some residents said that they had tried to pressure the Housing Authority into moving them faster. And they have had trouble drawing citywide attention to their problem.