Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

The removal of 10,000 tons of contaminated soil from one of the oldest housing projects in Los Angeles began this week, but community activists say the cleanup plan is flawed.

Communities for a Better Environment, a grassroots environmental-justice organization, said the cleanup of the former oil-refinery site puts residents at risk. Suzana Tapia, director of the Southern California chapter, said more than the top 2 feet of soil should be removed. Her group wants the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to come up with more extensive corrective measures.

“The removal of 2 feet is like a Band-Aid on the problem,” said Tapia during a residents’ meeting at William Mead Homes last week. “It is not enough. It will not work, and in some years the contamination will resurface again.”

DTSC toxicologists say there are high levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a cancer-causing oil byproduct, in the surface soil of William Mead. They say there’s no threat to the residents if they avoid direct contact with the soil. Tests found the average levels of the compound at 19 parts per million; the state considers a safe level to be one part per million.

The plan is to contain the threat of exposure by capping off the site with 2 feet of fresh soil. In all, residents of six buildings affected by the contamination will be moved during the $1.5 million cleanup, which is expected to take a month or so.

Residents of three buildings have already been moved. The buildings have been fenced off and air monitors installed, Housing spokesman Hugo Garcia said. Fifty families have been relocated to corporate housing or hotels or are staying with relatives.

L.A.’s Housing Authority is doing the best it can to ease the evacuations while it works on the cleanup, Garcia said. Residents should be back in their homes in a matter of weeks.

Some residents complained that the relocation has put stress on them. Most of their children go to the on-site Ann Street School. A number of families have had to share rooms in hotels, said Resident Advisory Council president Edgar Barrera.

William Mead, just north of downtown in Lincoln Heights, is home to more than 1,400 Latino and Vietnamese-American residents. An oil refinery operated there from the early 1900s until the project was built in 1943. Some tenants believe that up to two dozen cancer deaths could be linked to the contamination. Lucy

Esquivel, a resident and community activist who died in February from ovarian cancer, blamed her illness on the pollution.

DTSC spokesman Ron Baker suggested in January that the state health department conduct a health study on residents after a Weekly story brought attention to the problem, which had been under review for more than five years by the Housing Authority. Baker said epidemiologists should conduct interviews and on-site tests to see if there is a connection between the contamination and residents’


Housing Authority executive director Don Smith said that he sympathizes with residents who are sick, but that there is no proof that the contamination caused their illnesses. He urged residents to be screened at an on-site clinic.

Dan Marquez, an attorney for the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles, said he was moved by the plight of Lucy Esquivel. He urged that residents be screened at an off-site clinic to ensure unbiased health tests.

To make certain that the contaminated soil will not reach residents during the excavations, the soil will be sprinkled down so that the particles cannot get into the air and reach residents, said DTSC toxicologist Kimi Klein.

But Tapia said that the sprinkling measure would not guarantee that the contaminated soil will not be blown away and reach residents who live across the street. “The wind cannot be controlled,” she said.

The problems that the residents of William Mead face are just another example of environmental racism, Tapia said at a recent protest, as dozens of residents displayed picket signs with phrases like “No more cancer.”

“You know that if this were Beverly Hills or any other affluent area, this would not be happening,” Tapia said.

Environmental racism or not, Leovardo Leony, 56, is one of the many William Mead residents who are convinced that their illnesses are linked to the contamination. His vocal cords were destroyed by cancer: He now speaks through a talking device. His wife, Leony said, also died of cancer some years ago. He fears that the children at William Mead are the ones who are at most risk from the toxic contaminants.

“They constantly play in the soil,” he said. “I just pray that in a few years, they don’t end up like me.”

Advertising disclosure: We may receive compensation for some of the links in our stories. Thank you for supporting LA Weekly and our advertisers.

LA Weekly