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Jordan Downs: Toxic Cleanups Underway, but Many Fear It’s Too Little, Too Late

Residents fear the worst of the environmental damage has already been done.

A birds-eye view of Jordan Downs and the various cleanup sites, made by Thelmy Perez, LA Human Right to Housing Collective Coordinator. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

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When the head of one of California’s largest and most powerful environmental agencies visited the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts, Los Angeles, in March, it proved a major coup for a community that has long fought to have its fears concerning the human toll from years of heavy industrial pollution heard.

Jordan Downs was the final port of call that Barbara Lee, recently appointed director of the beleaguered Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC), made on a whistle-stop tour of toxic sites. Indeed, during her brief visit, she stopped by three existing cleanup sites in and around Jordan Downs, which directly borders one of California’s top 5 percent most environmentally burdened regions.

The 700-unit housing project is a sad example of poverty and pollution all too frequently going hand in hand.

And because Jordan Downs also scores among the very worst in the state for such indicators as income, education and unemployment, the 700-unit housing project is a sad example of an Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment finding that poverty and pollution all too frequently go hand in hand.

Lee was shown a high school where dangerous levels of lead and arsenic have been discovered, an old industrial “factory” site where 33,600 cubic yards of contaminated soil is in the process of being excavated and removed, and an Exxon Mobil pipeline breach where efforts to clean contaminated groundwater have been ongoing since 2000.

But for many community advocates, what recognition for Jordan Downs’ plight is fostered by Lee’s visit, as well as whatever cleanups are currently underway, is all too little, too late for those residents – the youngest especially – who have lived for years in the polluted shadow of local industry.

TCE contamination causes an array of health problems, from damage to the central nervous system to increased chances of cancer.

“We were encouraged by Barbara Lee’s visit, and think it was a great symbolic step forward from the DTSC. However, we remain cautiously optimistic,” wrote Thelmy Perez, LA Human Right to Housing Collective coordinator and a pivotal figure over recent years in the fight for more comprehensive testing at Jordan Downs, in a statement.

With so many different contaminants found in and around Jordan Downs, and limited scientific knowledge concerning the health impact of long-term exposure to multiple contaminants, Perez is concerned about what she sees as a lack of urgency on the part of those agencies responsible for the various cleanups.

“There is a serious lack of transparency when it comes to the scale and scope of the contaminated soils, air and groundwater surrounding Jordan Downs and other local areas,” Perez added. “Despite awareness of the existence of multiple toxic sites … within a stone’s throw of local schools and residences, the regulatory agencies have not done enough to ensure that local residents are not being exposed to these toxic substances. Instead, families are told not to worry.”

TCE “Plume” of Concern at “Factory” Site

Frank Wilson, a retired teacher who for fifteen years has advocated for more comprehensive testing at the site of a Leaking Underground Fuel Tank on the southwest corner of Jordan Downs. (Photo: Daniel Ross)Frank Wilson, a retired teacher who for fifteen years has advocated for more comprehensive testing at the site of a Leaking Underground Fuel Tank on the southwest corner of Jordan Downs. (Photo: Daniel Ross) Jordan Downs has witnessed a years-long tug of war between the housing authority, state environmental officials and community advocates as to what should be done to ensure the health and safety of the project’s nearly 2,500 residents. This struggle has been made all the more complicated by plans to tear down the current 700 subsidized housing units and replace them with up to 1,800 new mixed-income apartments.

At the very heart of Jordan Downs – and the problem itself – is a now vacant and walled-off industrial site called the “factory” that immediately abuts residential homes. Historically, the site was used for steel manufacturing, trucking operations and waste storage – activities that contaminated the soil with such pollutants as engine oil, diesel, gasoline and paint thinner.

A 2011 environmental report found “unacceptable” levels of arsenic and lead, petroleum hydrocarbons, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs, commonly found in transformers) and naphthalene (the main ingredient in mothballs) at the factory site.

The cleanup is now underway to excavate and remove 33,600 cubic yards of contaminated soil on land that will eventually be built upon as part of the redevelopment. But the story up to this point has been far from smooth.

“The WHO really doesn’t believe that there’s any level of lead exposure that’s safe.”

Many were dismayed that a hole in the wall surrounding the “factory” large enough for an adult to crawl through was filled just last year, despite residents talking for years of their children climbing through this hole in order to play within the vacant lot. Authorities knew about the lead and arsenic contamination at the “factory” as far back as 2010.

Toxicologists for the housing authority set the original lead cleanup target at 525 milligrams per kilogram – almost seven times the recommended lead levels for residential areas (80 milligrams per kilogram). The DTSC stated a number of times subsequently that they would not sign off on a threshold above 80 milligrams per kilogram.

And community advocates were worried about a 2013 community notice stating how “current site conditions do not pose an immediate health risk” because no testing at that point had been conducted beyond the perimeter of the “factory” wall. And while tests beyond the wall conducted in 2014 found elevated levels of such pollutants as lead and PCEs (tetrachloroethylene, an industrial solvent), these pollutants were deemed “similar to those found in urban areas of Los Angeles” and a “No Further Action” determination was reached.

The DTSC, however, continues to monitor a trichloroethylne (TCE) “plume” north of the factory site. The full reach of the TCE “plume” is also not yet known.

According to Lenny Siegel, the Center for Public Environmental Oversight’s executive director, the DTSC isn’t doing enough to ensure that residents of Jordan Downs are not impacted by the TCE “plume.”

“For the existing housing, I don’t think they’ve done the appropriate sampling,” he said. “And measuring deep soil gas away from the homes is not the best way to do it.”

Two large waste piles of soils contaminated with copper, lead and zinc were discovered adjacent to the school.

Because the TCE “plume” has not been delineated, Siegel’s primary concern surrounds the threat of indoor TCE vapor intrusion – TCE gas in soil that seeps into homes through the floor. While the science surrounding TCE contamination is rapidly evolving, what is already known is that it causes an array of health problems, ranging from damage to the central nervous system to increased chances of cancer.

“The greatest risk probably is to pregnant women,” he said. “Basically, there’s an increased risk of cardiac birth defects, as well as other problems. The scientists believe that pregnant mothers are most vulnerable during a one-day to three-week time period during the first trimester of pregnancy.”

“The history of vapor intrusion is replete with examples of unexpected hits indoors,” he added. “Therefore, even if one thinks it unlikely that TCE levels inside homes aren’t that dangerous, they don’t really know because they haven’t done that sampling.”

Solutions to soil vapor intrusion are relatively easy and inexpensive, he said. “But I think they’re reluctant to do it because they don’t want to invest in these homes because they want to tear them down,” Siegel said.

In response to questions posed by Truthout, the DTSC wrote in a statement: “DTSC has secured state and federal funds to investigate the source of TCE groundwater contamination. This investigation included soil, soil vapor and groundwater testing in the area north of the factory site.”

The “obvious risk of contamination” comes from industrial activity. “You just don’t get those kinds of levels just from paint.”

The first phase of the investigation has been completed, the DTSC wrote. “The preliminary results show that there are elevated levels of TCE at further depth. DTSC recently conducted further sampling and we are currently reviewing the data to determine whether additional sampling or cleanup is needed.”

A number of other agencies that have followed the cleanup at Jordan Downs agree with Siegel that more comprehensive testing needs to be done there, though not only for TCE, but also for other pollutants.

Any elevated levels of lead should have set the alarm bells ringing, said Monika Shankar, health and environment associate at Physicians for Social Responsibility.

She said that single mother families comprise 60 percent of the population at Jordan Downs, while a large slice of the population are children under the age of 10. Pointing to common health effects of lead exposure in children, Shankar ticked off behavioral problems, hyperactivity, developmental delays, hearing loss and damage to the brain and nervous system.

“In terms of childhood exposure to lead, I think there’s an estimate of 600,000 children developing intellectual disabilities every year. The World Health Organization really doesn’t believe that there’s any kind of level of lead exposure that’s safe,” she said.

Read the full DTSC response to questions.

Jordan High: Lead Contamination Over 11 Times Recommended Levels

The Soil Vapor Extraction system tucked into the corner of Coco's Auto Dismantling yard at the northeast tip of Jordan Downs. (Photo: Daniel Ross)The Soil Vapor Extraction system tucked into the corner of Coco’s Auto Dismantling yard at the northeast tip of Jordan Downs. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

Another piece of the puzzle that formed parts of Lee’s visit is the David Starr Jordan High School perched on the southwest corner of Jordan Downs – the scene of a number of cleanup efforts over recent years.

An explosion in December 2002 at an adjacent metal recycling facility – the S&W Atlas Iron and Metal Company (Atlas Metals) – tossed an unexploded bomb that originated from a San Diego military base into the Jordan High sports and baseball field.

Subsequent testing of the field revealed elevated levels of lead and arsenic among an array of contaminants in the soil that could be traced back to Atlas Metals. Two large waste piles of soils contaminated with copper, lead and zinc were discovered along the back fence of Atlas Metals adjacent to the school.

A year and a half later, more than 1,200 tons of impacted soil was excavated and removed from the sports field. But the overall cleanup didn’t end there, and Atlas Metals was later ordered to pay $350,000 in fines. Atlas Metals is currently cuffed with land use restrictions and mandated routine inspections of its facility.

“It smells really bad when they suck up water from the holes they’ve drilled around the yard.”

“When we went [to Atlas Metals] with the judge, I always remember wondering what that judge must have thought when he saw that place, because it was really a mess,” said Florence Gharibian, who, when she worked for the DTSC, was involved with the cleanup at Atlas Metals. Gharibian now works with the Del Amo Action Committee, a grassroots environmental justice community group.

“The issue with this metal recycling yard is that I describe it as basically sharing the parking lot with the high school … But I do know this,” she added. “I have a great deal of confidence in the people in the schools program who were doing that cleanup work.”

More recently, further tests detected elevated levels of lead and arsenic within Jordan High, and two contaminated sites were excavated and the impacted soils were removed in 2014. Efforts are underway to excavate and remove a further 1,128 tons of impacted soil at a cost of $300,000.

At the current cleanup site, lead levels were found as high as 901 milligrams per kilogram – over 11 times the recommended California human health screening level for residential areas.

The lead-impacted areas at Jordan High School are suspected to be from historic lead-based paint application on school buildings based on sample locations and depths, the DTSC wrote in response to questions.

As to the arsenic-impacted soil, the impacted area was limited to the western portion of Jordan High School, the DTSC wrote. “The source of arsenic contamination in the localized area is suspected to come from fill material used during construction activities at that location, according to the Los Angeles Unified School District.”

But according to Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, the “obvious risk of contamination” comes from industrial activity, especially given the close proximity of the high school to a number of industrial facilities, including Atlas Metals, the “factory” site as well as the site of a former lead smelting plant from the 1950s and 1960s.

“You just don’t get those kinds of levels just from paint,” she said.

Because of the long-term exposure to lead and arsenic already suffered by Jordan High students and staff, Williams said, the cleanup effort cannot afford to leave behind “one molecule of lead.”

“I am very concerned about the cleanup – the digging and hauling of that much contaminated soil from that site,” she said. “Great care needs to be taken so that the community is not to be re-exposed … Recontamination is a major problem.”

Read a detailed account of what precautions the DTSC plans to take in the cleanup.

Exxon Mobil Spill: Concerns Soil Vapor Extraction System Impacts Air Quality

A few blocks north of Jordan High at the northeast corner of Jordan Downs is the site of an Exxon Mobil pipeline breach that was discovered in the late 1990s.

Pollutants such as benzene, toluene, xylene and petroleum hydrocarbons – all of which are known to cause an array of serious health problems – have contaminated the groundwater.

A soil vapor extraction (SVE) system is tucked into the corner of Coco’s Auto Dismantling yard – one of a small stretch of scrap metal yards on that corner of Jordan Downs, behind which sit residential homes. The system was installed in 2008, and has been running almost constantly since, removing and burning off contaminants from the groundwater.

Lenny Siegel is less concerned about the threat of indoor vapor intrusion from petroleum hydrocarbons, “unless the concentrations are high enough.” And he raised concerns over the impact on overall air quality from the SVE system given the proximity of homes – concerns shared by the owner of the yard.

“It smells really bad when they suck up water from the holes they’ve drilled around the yard,” said Pedro Figueroa, who has owned Coco’s yard for 12 years. “They do it two or three times a month … I remember the first time they did sampling. The water was black. It looked and smelled like gasoline.”

In response to questions, Exxon Mobil wrote: “The health and safety of those living and working in the community are our number one priority. Exxon Mobil continues to work with appropriate regulatory authorities on the remedial program and environmental monitoring for this site, as per an approved Remedial Action Plan.”

And yet another ingredient in the story of pollution at Jordan Downs is the issue of Shell Oil’s Leaking Underground Fuel Tank (LUFT) at the southwestern corner of Jordan Downs, where a former gas station stood.

Wilson claims that he knows of six people who worked at the nearby school who have died from cancer.

Though the underground tank was removed in 1976, the area wasn’t properly remediated. In 1998, the Los Angeles Unified School District leased the property with the intention of building four portable classrooms there. After the classrooms were built, “chemical smells” were noted during the installation of fencing around the property. The classrooms were abandoned and the area was covered with asphalt.

After years of soil vapor testing for chemicals typical to gasoline such as benzene – a known carcinogen – in the immediate vicinity of the site, a work plan was submitted earlier this year to conduct soil vapor testing at the Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary School on the other side of the street.

Instrumental in the push for testing at the school has been Frank Wilson, a former teacher at the nearby Grape Street Elementary School. Wilson has been following and documenting developments at the site for 15 years. During this time, he sent letter after letter to numerous state and federal agencies pleading for action to determine the extent of the contamination caused by the LUFT. He describes years of being shunted from one department to another.

Wilson claims that he knows of six people who worked at Florence Griffith Joyner Elementary who have died from cancer – three before 2000, and three after. His greatest fear is that contamination stemming from the LUFT may have contributed to their illnesses.

“If you know something is wrong, and you don’t do something, you’re as bad as the problem,” Wilson said. “If you know something is wrong, you have to do something. That’s the way I was brought up.”

Taking into account the number of cleanup sites in and around Jordan Downs, and its geographic seat in the heart of one of the most polluted regions in the state, many experts are concerned that the cumulative impact from all known pollutants should prompt a more extensive look at the overall health impact on the residents at Jordan Downs.

“Here’s what the residents want to see: They want to make sure there’s really not a problem in their homes and in their yards,” said Ramya Sivasubramanian, staff attorney for environmental justice at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

“And that’s a reasonable request,” Sivasubramanian added. “Scientifically, it’s a reasonable request based on what had already been promised. Unfortunately, the authorities said no. And so, at this point, we’ll continue to look for ways to get additional testing [at the factory site]. And we’ll continue to ensure that the cleanup is done in a way that is health protective for the residents.”

One of those residents is Eleazer Acevedo, 30, a single mother who lives at Jordan Downs with her five children, the eldest 14 and the youngest not yet six months. Acevedo and her family moved to Jordan Downs in 2013.

In 2014, when pregnant with her youngest child, Acevedo warned her doctor of the contamination found at the “factory” site. Her doctor subsequently wrote a letter to the housing authority, stating how the conditions at Jordan Downs weren’t safe for a pregnant woman. He also ordered extra ultrasounds throughout Acevedo’s pregnancy.

“Having those ultrasounds were my main concern, because they have not given us information regarding the contamination that [might] exist in the apartments,” Acevedo said, in Spanish. “There haven’t been any tests done, and my child is so small, so his health could be affected. They have never given us any proof that the area we live in is safe.”

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