Dangerous Dirt

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

Barely visible from the street, bulldozer crews toil to dig up tons of toxic soil from once well-kept lawns. Silver air monitors that look like space-age bird houses can be seen through the green-colored dust guard draped around a 10-foot steel fence.

Here in Lincoln Heights, a $1.5 million cleanup is under way at William Mead Homes, one of L.A.’s largest housing projects. Residents of three buildings have been temporarily moved out. Windows and doors are sealed with plastic covers to prevent possibly cancer-causing dust from seeping inside.

To some residents and community-watchdog groups, the measures taken over the last seven years by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles fall far short. They believe that replacing two feet of toxic dirt with fresh soil will not solve the environmental problems they blame for sickening them and, in a dozen or so cases, causing the cancer deaths of tenants.

“Capping-off two feet of soil is a Band-Aid approach,” said Suzanna Tapia, the executive director for Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a watchdog group based in L.A. “In a few years, the contamination will resurface again.”

According to tests overseen by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), some of the highest levels of toxics in William Mead occur as deep in the soil as five feet. Tapia and others fear that rain could, in a matter of years, bring the contamination back to ground level. Tapia and attorneys from the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles have asked housing officials to stop the cleanup until more thorough testing can be done. But those officials refused, said Bill Davis, the Housing Authority staff member who is overseeing the removal effort.

Forty-nine families have been relocated, and another 64 families from three other buildings will be moved in a matter of weeks, said Housing spokesman Hugo Garcia. Some families have been moved to hotels, while others have been given stipends or are staying with relatives.

The cleanup is expected to take another six months. Housing officials say work crews will remove up to 11,500 tons of soil that was contaminated by an old oil refinery operated by the Amalgamated Oil Company during the early 1900s. The William Mead projects were constructed in 1940, long before concerns about environmental hazards were raised.

Toxicologists with the State Department of Toxic Substances Control say there are high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), a cancer-causing oil byproduct, in the surface soil of William Mead. Over the years, they cautioned residents to avoid direct contact with the soil, advice that is especially unlikely to be followed by children and gardeners. Tests found the average levels of the compound at 19 parts per million; the state considers 1 part per million a safe level.

During a recent meeting at William Mead, hundreds of residents displayed their dissatisfaction with the removal and relocation efforts. They told Housing Authority and DTSC officials that they have always had little say in the way things are done at William Mead.

“The process is under way, and we will not stop,” the Housing Authority’s assistant executive director, Lucille Loyce, told residents.

Maria Quezada, a William Mead resident who says that she and her two children have been suffering from respiratory problems since they moved to William Mead, asked the residents, “Those of you who are unhappy with the way things are [being] done, raise your hands.” Most hands went up.

One of the oldest housing projects in Los Angeles, William Mead is home to 1,400 low-income Latino and Vietnamese immigrants. It is also the site of an elementary school.

For years, William Mead residents have complained of many illnesses, such as cancer and respiratory problems. They blame these health problems on the contamination, including more than two-dozen deaths they believe to be linked to the contamination. Housing officials were first alerted about the William Mead contamination in 1993 by a former resident, many of whose relatives and friends had died of cancer. He believed that their illnesses were linked to the site.

One of the nagging issues for residents has been what they perceive as a lack of concern for their problems. After a story appeared in the Weekly in January documenting the contamination, DTSC spokesman Ron Baker suggested that a health study should be done to determine whether the contamination might be responsible for the illnesses of the residents. But getting government agencies to respond hasn’t been easy.

County health officials, claiming they were never officially notified, said that they have just recently begun to look into the health problems at William Mead, and that it is still too early to say what measures might be taken. Housing Authority Executive Director Don Smith has said in interviews that he sympathizes with sick residents and encourages them to be screened at a William Mead on-site clinic. But environmental and tenant rights organizations, including CBE and the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, have asked DTSC and Housing Department officials to help residents get health screenings at an independent medical facility.

Baker compared the William Mead situation to Northern California’s Midway Village, a Daly City housing project that was built on top of a former gas plant. According to state scientists, the plant left chemical residues that include PAH’s — the same oil byproduct found in William Mead. The levels found in 1990 in Daly City were 170 times higher than the state standards.

As at William Mead, Midway Village residents believe that a slew of illnesses, including cancer, are linked to the contamination. Fifty-eight of 400 residents went so far as to pay the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to analyze DNA tests they also had paid for themselves, according to San Francisco Chronicle stories that ran earlier this year.

Federal tests showed that 32 of 34 residents ages 18 and under had defective chromosomes. Out of 24 adults, 19 had abnormal levels of irregularities in their DNA. (Scientific studies have revealed that genetic defects can make people more prone to cancer and other illnesses.)

Following the Chronicle stories, Daly City elected officials, unlike those in Los Angeles, stepped in and demanded that the residents be screened. State Assembly majority leader Kevin Shelley introduced a bill that would require the state to conduct a health assessment to try to determine whether there is a linkage between the illnesses of residents and the toxics there.

At William Mead, even as housing crews unearth tainted soil, a Los Angeles Unified School District environmental expert said that the process might endanger children who attend an on-site elementary school. In a letter to LAUSD Interim Environmental Health and Safety Director Angelo Bellomo, Bill Piazza, an environmental assessment coordinator for the LAUSD, said that the process of removing tons of dirt could cause soil particles to be blown toward nearby Ann Street Elementary School.

The removal, Piazza wrote, “cannot ensure the health of our students and staff attending class and/or working at . . . Ann Street School.” He added that the project should stop until further studies could be done. In his letter, Piazza said that the removal of the soil in William Mead could cause “inhalation of particulates [that] may cause coughing, wheezing and [other] physical discomfort in breathing, and may alter the immune system.” He added that the “elevation in the level of ambient particulates has been linked to increased mortality, respiratory infections, asthma attacks, and aggravation of pre-existing respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.” A screen cover has been attached to a fence that surrounds the affected buildings, as have air monitors, to ensure that contaminated particles are not blown in the direction of students or residents, said Housing Authority spokesman Garcia.

Legal Aid attorneys and CBE members were outraged by the problems noted in Piazza’s letter. Both groups scolded Housing Authority officials during a recent meeting at William Mead. CBE member Fidel Rodriguez told Housing officials that community members felt that additional soil tests were needed before continuing with the removal project.

Tenants continue to complain about relatives who have been struck by cancer or by respiratory problems. Quezada, the mother of two, said that she started having breathing problems as soon as she moved into William Mead almost two years ago. “I am sick and so is my family,” Quezada said.

“This is outrageous,” said the CBE’s Rodriguez in an interview. “You know this wouldn’t be happening in Beverly Hills. This is outright environmental genocide.” And at a recent meeting with Housing Authority officials, Rodriguez said, “This is purely environmental racism” as residents cheered on. “You are saying that everything is just fine, but you don’t care about the residents. People are dying here.”

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