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Autumnwood: A Community Living in Toxic Fear and Uncertainty

Autumnwood, a community just outside Los Angeles, is riven by a fear held by many that the land on which the houses were built is contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Amaryllis Court, in Autumnwood. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

Autumnwood is a show-home suburbia of stucco fronts and primly kept lawns nestled in the heart of Wildomar, California, about an hour and a half southeast of Los Angeles. Tranquil, sleepy, Autumnwood could be a poster-child for any modern housing tract. But beneath the façade, Autumnwood is a community riven by a fear held by many that the land on which the houses were built is contaminated with toxic chemicals. And despite the findings of two separate governmental agencies, more questions continue to be raised than have thus far been answered.

Since the first tenants moved into Autumnwood a little over eight years ago, a rash of serious illnesses, sometimes fatal, have pockmarked the community. Take Amaryllis Court – an eleven-home cul-de-sac bookending one corner of Autumnwood. In those eight years at Amaryllis Court alone, two women in their thirties have died from complications arising from pneumonia, while a number of families have fled their homes and many of their belongings after suffering for years with chronic illnesses.

There’s the Muniz family: Jennifer, Javier and their four children. Jennifer and Javier Muniz moved into their home on Amaryllis Court in 2006. Since then, the Muniz’s three eldest children have suffered a laundry list of illnesses, including gastrointestinal and respiratory problems, rashes and pneumonia. Doctors have toyed with a number of prognoses specific to the intestine, including Crohn’s and Celiac disease. After falling sick with flu, Jennifer had her gall bladder removed. It was diseased, almost completely black. She was 29 at the time. The Muniz’s abandoned their home in 2012 after doctors warned Jennifer that she could endanger her unborn child if she remained in her home. During Jennifer’s previous pregnancy, formaldehyde was found in her breast milk.

Xonia and Floyd Villanueva share a similar profile with the Muniz family. They and their three daughters have each endured a range of serious medical conditions since moving into Autumnwood, including chronic respiratory problems, autoimmune disorders and Hashimoto’s disease – a disease that attacks the thyroid. The Villanuevas abandoned their home and many of their belongings last year, as have another family on Amaryllis Court who subsequently taped to the inside of their front door a sign on bright pink paper that reads: “Warning, this home and its contents are contaminated with industrial pollutants.” I was unable to contact this family.

Thomas Ciccarelli’s wife Fatima was rushed to hospital with respiratory and congestive heart failure in August of 2012. She died aged 36, three weeks after giving birth to a healthy girl, and two weeks after getting married. Ciccarelli continues to live in Autumnwood with his daughter, Kalie, because of financial reasons. When he’s home, Ciccarelli leaves the windows and doors wide open to allow fresh air to flow through the house.

An unusually high number of pets have died at Amaryllis Court. In certain homes, a white powder permeates the soil in the gardens, and some of the pets that died had developed tumors on their lips and on their heads and necks. Cory Fields’ two-year-old Pitbull, Gracie, died less than a year after Fields moved in. He said that she was perfectly healthy before the move.

On the flip side of this story are the residents of Autumnwood who profess to good health, but whose lives they say have been ruined nonetheless. They paint a picture of living in a community stigmatized by the threat of contamination – of morbid sightseers who drive through Autumnwood whenever the story makes the news, of the fears they have for their children’s safety when looters target the abandoned homes in their neighborhood and of plummeting home values. In some cases, residents are concerned to publicly air their belief that Autumnwood is contaminant free for fear of retaliation by more vocal members of the community.

What has fueled this climate of fear and uncertainty is what some regard as negligence on the part of the one agency that should have provided swift answers: the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC).

What has fueled this climate of fear and uncertainty is what some regard as negligence on the part of the one agency that should have provided swift answers: the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC). Despite concerns about toxic contamination arising as far back as the early part of 2012, the DTSC didn’t conduct their own study at Autumnwood until November of last year. But as certain residents and experts pore over the raw data of that November study, they say that a number of findings are emerging that suggest that the investigation was flawed and that the DTSC have doctored the data to mask the full extent of the contamination. As the question marks continue to hover over Autumnwood, the closure that many residents desperately want seems an all-too-distant and expensive mirage.

Inconclusive Findings

The Riverside County Planning Commission approved the Autumnwood Estates development during the bloated zenith of the real estate bubble. Residents moved into the first of the 61 homes that comprise Autumnwood during March of 2006. When they were first put on the market, some houses were worth in excess of $500,000. Not long after moving into Autumnwood, however, some of the residents noticed that their homes shared similar structural problems. Damp patches started to appear on ground level floors, while many began to detect a strong musty damp smell emerging in certain parts of their homes.

Richard and Ofelia Covos moved into their home on Front Street in Autumnwood in 2008. Since then, Ofelia has suffered from a series of chronic respiratory problems, including sinusitis and bronchitis. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Richard and Ofelia Covos moved into their home on Front Street in Autumnwood in 2008. Since then, Ofelia has suffered from a series of chronic respiratory problems, including sinusitis and bronchitis. (Photo: Daniel Ross)“After five months of living here, we experienced defects with the house,” said Richard Covos, who lives with his wife Ofelia and their daughter in a home on Front Street that originally cost them $420,000 back in 2008. Walking into their home, I was immediately struck by a heavy pungent odor that Richard Covos said materialized almost immediately after they moved in. “We noticed that the molding around the bottom started to bow out. They took the molding out and resurfaced everything. Underneath, I saw black, black mold. There was moisture. There was wet. The damp and the same problems are back.”

Soon after moving in, Ofelia Covos started to suffer respiratory problems.

“I was first diagnosed with sinusitis,” she said. “Then, after a while, I started coughing up blood. My doctor says that once you get sinusitis, it’s hard to get rid of the cough. Every night when I go to bed, I wear a mask… Just recently, I developed bronchitis. I never had any kind of respiratory problem before I moved here.”

The structural issues were traced in some cases back to a defect in the slabs upon which the houses were built. The worst-affected residents filed a structural defect lawsuit against the developers, G & D Developers, a limited liability company that had an insurance policy worth $1 million only. Once attorneys’ fees were subtracted, the settlement covered only a small percentage of the overall repair costs. In one case, the homeowner said that they received approximately $20,000 from the settlement for repair work estimated to cost upwards of $150,000. According to an employee of Kasdan Simonds Weber & Vaughan, Barry Vaughan, the lawyer who represented the plaintiffs in the suit, no longer works at the firm.

As a result of the defects in the slabs allowing excess moisture to permeate into the homes, mold was held aloft as the likely culprit for the illnesses. Four separate tests, however, all but eliminated mold from the mystery. Desperate for answers, Xonia and Floyd Villanueva hired Nancy Carraway, an industrial hygienist, to conduct an independent study in the area. The affected residents also hired Julia Swanson, a Beverly Hills-based attorney who specializes in toxic mold and torts, to represent them in a civil suit. Swanson declined to speak on record due to the ongoing case.

Between May 2012 and January of 2013, Carraway took samples of indoor and outdoor air at 12 separate homes, as well as soil samples in the sub-slab. She detected a number of toxic chemicals that were in some cases well above recommended California Human Health Screening Levels (CHHSLs), including benzene, 1, 2 dichloroethane and formaldehyde – all known carcinogens. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, CHHSLs are concentrations of 54 hazardous chemicals in soil or soil gas that the California EPA considers to be below thresholds of concern for risks to human health, and are used as a rough guideline by state environmental agencies to gauge potential contamination risks.

During this time, Ami Adini and Associates, an environmental consulting firm, conducted their own tests. While Adini said that they didn’t find anything significant, he added that they tested only for soil vapor in the outside sub-soil. “There was a very limited budget. We did not test inside the homes. But we did some testing outside of the homes,” he said.

At this point, the residents asked the state’s environmental agencies to intervene. Only one agency agreed to conduct a study: the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD), which conducted indoor air, outside air and soil tests on three homes in January of 2013. In their final report, SCAQMD states that, “the air samples collected from inside and outside the three homes did not have higher levels of compounds… typically seen in indoor or outdoor air.”

Sam Atwood, a spokesperson for the SCAQMD, repeated those claims to the television news channel, KTLA 5: “We hope it’s reassuring that what we found is no different than what we would find in any other subdivision in Southern California,” he said, before adding that, “our methods were sound.”

Certain aspects of the report triggered alarm bells, however. After testing the white substance permeating the soil, the SCAQMD report states that, “uranium levels were 4 and 77 percent higher in 2 soil samples.” The report further adds that, “uranium is naturally occurring and…should not cause health concerns.”

“When you get something like uranium showing up, that should have triggered some questions about what’s going on here,” said Penny Newman, director of the Center for Community Action and Environmental Justice, and someone who has followed the case closely. “I know that you can have uranium naturally occurring, but it’s a real challenge to work out whether uranium is naturally occurring or whether it was dumped there. I think that the white substance that is coming up is something that we need to look at very closely.”

Other question marks were raised about whether the SCAQMD, an agency concerned with outdoor air quality, should ever have conducted a study that required indoor air testing and soil gas sampling – a concern that Sam Atwood echoed himself.

“This study was a little bit unusual for this agency because, strictly speaking, we have the mandate to meet outdoor air quality standards,” Atwood told me. “We have no jurisdiction over indoor air quality, and frankly, we don’t have a lot of expertise in this area because that’s not something we deal with on a routine basis.”

Then, when the SCAQMD’s findings were converted into a different unit of measurement-from parts per billion to micrograms per cubic meter squared-the chemicals they found were actually higher than target thresholds.

For instance, in the bedroom of a house on Front Street, benzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene and ethylbenzene-dangerous contaminants that the US EPA states can cause a range of serious, sometimes fatal, illnesses over prolonged exposure-were all found to be above target indoor air concentration thresholds.

On the back of the SCAQMD’s study, the Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment compiled their own report, coalescing the AQMD’s findings with those of the independent studies done by Carraway and Ami Adini. While the report states that most of the chemicals evaluated did not present a concern for non-carcinogenic health effects, they did find that formaldehyde in some homes was at levels where acute effects may occur. They suggested that, “further testing should be undertaken since limited sampling had been done in these homes.”

In November of 2013, the DTSC tested indoor and outdoor air, groundwater and soil gas at 15 different sites throughout Autumnwood. In their preliminary findings, published in December, the DTSC stated that there was no evidence of soil contamination. In January, they published a more comprehensive report. In soil and groundwater sampling results, the report finds that “all metals are within background,’ while among many other non-detects, “no formaldehyde was detected in the groundwater.”

A spokesperson for the DTSC said that they were unavailable for comment because they were currently conducting a quality control test on the lab data. Once the quality control was finished, presumed to be in the next two weeks, they will then release their final report.

According to Newman, and Xonia and Floyd Villanueva, who have spent the past few months scouring through the raw data-a stack of paper almost knee high-the DTSC’s official findings thus far don’t correlate with the actual data.

“There are a lot of chemicals there, and they aren’t the kinds of chemicals that you would normally find,” said Newman. “There’s a lot of petroleum-based chemicals, like benzene. Despite what the DTSC is saying, and for whatever reason, the raw data and the testing results contradict their conclusions. You don’t do that by accident. They’re either totally incompetent, or it’s blatant manipulation of data to minimalize the problem at Autumnwood. Either way, I think it verges on the level of criminal action.”

According to Xonia Villanueva, the data throws up a number of troubling findings. She said that the reason the DTSC claimed that they didn’t find formaldehyde in the groundwater is because they set the detection level too high, and that formaldehyde is present in the groundwater along with a long list of other chemicals, including benzene and chloroform.

Villanueva pointed to one example where naphthalene-a compound that the National Pesticide Information Center says can be found in cigarette smoke, car exhaust fumes and mothballs-was found in soil gas at a site on Front street in concentrations that were more than double the CHHSLs. She also noted how the DTSC claim their mobile laboratory broke down during the investigation, and that when the DTSC took six soil gas samples that contained very high levels of volatile organic compounds outside of their home, they didn’t use those findings in the final report.

“They said that the tracer [a gas that detects ambient air intrusion in the sample] was too high, but in some cases, the tracer levels were within the accepted range,” said Xonia Villanueva. “When you dig through the data, it’s definite that they lied about the level of contamination… And they abused their power by manipulating the sample collection and deliberately disposing of concentrations of chemicals.”

Dr. Yoram Cohen, a professor of chemical engineering at UCLA who has led a number of studies looking into contamination in Southern California, has looked at the DTSC’s January report, though not the raw data. He also examined the findings from the previous studies conducted at Autumnwood. He recommended that the community approach their State or Federal representative, and that they also consider urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency for an independent investigation.

Adding further grist to the mill, questions surround the source of the soil upon which the homes were built.

Adding further grist to the mill, questions surround the source of the soil upon which the homes were built. Approximately 55,000 cubic yards of soil was trucked in to fill a ten-foot deep hole beneath the Autumnwood tract. Geotechnical records list the soil as coming from the Rancho California Water District, the washout areas of Lake Elsinore, as well as a site at the corner of Washington Avenue and Clinton Keith Road in Wildomar.

Some residents, however, found an assortment of objects buried in the soil in their gardens, such as plastic bags, bits of tire, and tree and plant debris. A December 2004 field memo by PETRA, the geotechnical firm charged with preparing the soil before construction, details how a contractor at Autumnwood spread “good soil with organic and trash filled stock piles [at the] east end of the site.” Despite being told that no organics could be used in the fill, “the contractor proceeded to mix organics with underlying soils for fill placement.”

The objects found in the soils have only compounded existing fears that contaminated soil was dumped at Autumnwood illegally.

Gary Andre, a former trail commissioner for Riverside County and a former co-chair of Land Review in Wildomar, said that a resident of Wildomar had complained in 2007 to Riverside County officials that he had followed trucks shipping dirt taken from gas stations being developed in Temecula, a town 12 miles from Wildomar, and observed them deposit the soil at Autumnwood and a nearby creek.

“[The resident] stated very specifically that they were removing the soil from the gas stations in Temecula,” said Andre. “It’s expensive to get rid of contaminated dirt. If you can load a truckload of contaminated dirt somewhere else, who cares? That’s how they feel. It is a problem.”

Andre said that he did not know the name of the Wildomar resident who allegedly made the complaint, and a spokesperson for Riverside County has, as yet, been unable to find a record of the complaint.

“The only situation that I’ve run into where there was something similar was on a project I was doing in Northern Alaska on former military bases. They were building a foundation for a school and they dug up a tank. When the defense department left, they had just buried everything,” said professor David O. Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment University at Albany.

Professor Carpenter, who has published studies looking into the health effects of toxic exposure, said that one of the concerns at Autumnwood is that little is known about the way in which chemicals act synergistically, even at low levels and over an extended period of time.

“The issue here is you know that you have a number of known human carcinogens. Formaldehyde and benzene would be cases in point, “said professor Carpenter. “Where you have two chemicals, each of which cause cancer; when you’re exposed to both of them, you have more than an additive elevated risk. And in this instance, you have no idea of how many carcinogens people are being exposed to.”

He explained that a range of psychological factors could be at play to explain why some residents profess to be healthy while others are suffering debilitating illnesses. “There are psychological impacts here on both sides. When one household complains that they are ill, that can be suggestive and make other households say that they’re ill too. When people respond in the opposite way, they might for a variety of reasons deny that they’re ill, whether they actually are ill or not.” He added that some people are simply more susceptible to toxic exposure that others – a sentiment echoed by Dr. Nachman Brautbar, a specialist in toxicology, who also agreed that little was known about the long-term accumulative affects of toxic exposure.

“Just because the levels are not at a level that the regulatory agencies do not recognize, that does not mean that it’s healthy for these residents,” said Dr. Brautbar. “There are chemicals that have an accumulative effect, and we have to take into consideration the duration of the exposure.”

Ineffective Regulator? California’s Department of Toxic Substance Control

The events at Autumnwood have played out against a backdrop of mounting criticism of the DTSC. In January, agency leaders went before a State Senate Environmental Quality committee hearing to explain the delays that occur during the permitting process for hazardous waste facilities, as well as the problems in the agency’s hazardous waste tracking system.

During the four-hour grilling, the DTSC leaders were roundly condemned by committee members who frequently called into question the department’s ability to manage toxic waste in the state.

“What I’ve seen is repeated failure on behalf of the department to protect some of the most vulnerable communities throughout the state of California”

“What I’ve seen is repeated failure on behalf of the department to protect some of the most vulnerable communities throughout the state of California,” said State Senator Kevin De Leon (D), 22nd District. “This is not a northern California or southern California problem but it is, I believe, a deeply entrenched systemic cultural problem in the department.”

The senate hearing arrived in the aftermath of last year’s damning 68-page Consumer Watchdog report on the DTSC, entitled “Golden Wasteland.” Liza Tucker, the author of the report, spent six months compiling her findings after working alongside DTSC employees. The report paints a picture of an agency too closely tied with the industry entities that it should be regulating due to a revolving door of regulators, lobbyists and lawyers, and highlights an agency “that does not fully understand its own powers or intentionally refuses to apply them.”

According to the report, California has some of the toughest environmental protection laws in the nation, but also some of the weakest enforcement. “Among the divisions that enforce those laws, the DTSC does the poorest job,” the report states.

“As an example, the DTSC collected far less in fines than the California Air Resources Board between 2007 and 2010, even though it has far broader responsibilities,” the report states. “Over these three years, DTSC’s penalties fell by half, to $2.2 million, while the California Air Resources Board collected between $9 and $20 million each fiscal year in the same time period.”

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency’s Yearly Toxic Release Inventory, toxic releases in California rose in 2011 after showing a steady decline since 2007, while releases to water and soil increased by 10 percent in 2011.

Tucker, who has followed the developments at Autumnwood, said that the story of Wildomar is emblematic of the dysfunction within the DTSC, and their unwillingness to acknowledge the extent of the environmental problems in California.

“If you admit that there’s a problem at Wildomar, then you’ve got to admit there are many many other problem places around the state,” said Tucker. “That is a very inconvenient thing to admit because then you’ve got to either spend tax payer money to clean up situations where there is no responsible party, or you would have to litigate with companies who are responsible, and have them clean up to health protective standards, and I don’t think this department is either capable or equipped-or has the inclination to do it.”

Tucker estimated that the cost to clean up Autumnwood could run upwards of $1 million per home.

For the former residents of Autumnwood who have abandoned their homes, they don’t need confirmation by the DTSC to believe that their homes are toxic.

“I had my ‘ah-ha’ moment when we went camping with my kids in the summer of 2011,” said Jennifer Muniz. “I brought with us what I called my pharmacy on wheels of medicine for the kids that they took on a regular basis. I also went out and brought an adapter for the car for the nebulizer treatment that my son, Javier, had to have – his asthma had got really bad. He had the nebulizer treatment a couple of times the first day we arrived. He didn’t need it at all by the second day. But, within eight hours of returning home to the house, he was back having the nebulizer treatment every three hours. He got rashes. He came out in hives. His eyes became all blood-shot. He was getting the strange bruising again.”

Muniz gave birth to Javier, her second youngest child, after they moved into Autumnwood. And she said that the decision to move out of their home may have come too late to have saved him from the long-term effects of toxic exposure. “Your home is the biggest investment that you’ll ever make, and it was a really hard decision for us to leave. But I definitely think that Javier has struggled the most because we took him home to that house when his body didn’t have the time to build a good strong immune system, and I think that that’s going to carry on with him for the rest of his life, unfortunately. I do feel guilty about it. He’s innocent in all of this.”

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