Home, Sweet Dump

Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov
For at least six years, Los Angeles housing officials have known that one of the city’s largest public-housing projects was built on top of a toxic dump, but have done little to clean it up, critics and residents say.

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.

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.”

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.

“She got transferred in retaliation for insisting that they do something about the toxic waste at William Mead,” said her attorney, Lenton Aikins of Long Beach.

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.

Middleton, the former board member, said it is hard to interest the city in what is a largely immigrant problem. (Some of the residents only speak Spanish or Vietnamese.) “When you ask the question, Why doesn’t anybody know [about the contamination]? . . . Jesus, I’ve been an attorney for 30 years, and was the commissioner and chair of the operations committee that has 80 percent of the Housing Authority’s business going through it. And I asked a lot of questions. And it was murder getting answers,” Middleton said.

Middleton said she even tried to get word to Mayor Richard Riordan and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo.

“I did a detailed letter to Cuomo, Riordan and everybody else, and they [the Housing Authority] were able to say, ‘Nah! You don’t want to listen to her,’” Middleton said. If she had trouble getting attention from the authorities, she added, what would be their attitude toward an immigrant public-housing resident?

No, Esquivel said, she can’t offer any scientific proof that the contaminated areas have caused her or other residents to develop cancer, and then — pausing frequently, as if every syllable caused pain — she added, “But deep in my heart I know that that is what caused it.”

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