The $1.5 million cleanup of toxic contamination at one of L.A.’s largest housing projects was dogged by criticism — even before it started.

It seemed odd in January, when the L.A. Housing Authority announced plans to dig up 1 foot of soil around six buildings at William Mead Homes in Lincoln Heights, that it had waited so long to take steps to solve a problem it had known about since 1995. Housing officials defended their slow pace, saying such efforts as warning residents not to dig or play in the soil had been adequate.

Once the work began in May, residents complained that not enough was being done to eradicate the damage caused by an oil refinery that operated on the site before the project was built in the 1940s. In response, housing officials decided to dig up to 5 feet of soil — more than 11,500 tons, enough dirt to keep crews busy for the rest of the year.

Now, however, residents are worried that the cleanup itself is making them sick. Rotten-egg odors emanate from the mounds of soil. Some residents complain of sore throats and watery eyes.

The magnitude of concern has reached the point where the state’s environmental agency and a state assemblyman want the work halted until all the questions can be answered. Among them: Is the cleanup really adequate? Is the cleanup exposing residents to hazardous chemicals? Did five decades of toxic pollution cause some of the cancer deaths of project residents?

But the work will not stop. The Housing Authority has refused to halt the cleanup, saying it would cost too much money and further inconvenience 49 families who have been put up in hotels or other temporary quarters during the project.

Ron Baker, spokesman for the state Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which called for a moratorium on the work, said the agency does not have the legal authority to force the city to stop the cleanup. “However, we will continue in our conversations with them to support a moratorium.”

State Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, whose 46th District includes William Mead Homes, said he’s concerned about the cumulative effect of decades of exposure to contaminants. State tests found that the soil is contaminated with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, an oil byproduct that is known to cause cancer. The levels of PAHs are19 times higher than what is considered a safe level by the state.

The cleanup is still in Phase One, which calls for removal of soil from around three buildings. In Phase Two, work will be done around three more buildings in the complex. In all, 113 families will be relocated during both phases. The projects are home to more than 1,400 people, most of them low-income immigrants.

The project has drawn the interest of Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), a Huntington Park–based environmental-watchdog group, which notes that the cleanup is being done by bulldozer crews while thousands of residents live nearby. “It just doesn’t make sense,” said CBE director Suzanne Tapia. “You know that in a more affluent area, this would not be happening.”

Just to make sure the scope of contamination is fully known, more tests will be done of soil north of Cardinal Street, which divides the housing project. Records show that the oil refinery did not encompass that land, but the state wants to make sure no contamination exists there. The soil testing will cost about $250,000.

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