TruthOut 4/16/15: “Jordan Downs: Toxic Cleanups Underway, but Many Fear It’s Too Little, Too Late”

Link to full article HERE.

“Jordan Downs: Toxic Cleanups Underway, but Many Fear It’s Too Little, Too Late
Written by Daniel Ross

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.

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.

“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

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.”

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 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.

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.

“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.”

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.

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.”


via VICE:

By Daniel Ross (@1danross)

Eleazer Acevedo and her children in their home inside the Jordan Downs housing project

It’s not necessarily the patchy linoleum flooring, the egg-white cinder block walls, or the bars against all the windows that gave Eleazer Acevedo’s unit at Jordan Downs in Watts, Los Angeles, its penitential quality—it’s more the sparsely furnished rooms, noticeably bare save a few scant furnishings that look as though they’ve been plucked from a dozen different roadsides and yard sales.

“Sit, sit,” Acevedo insisted, pointing towards two foldaway picnic chairs and a narrow stool in her living room—any more than three visitors and those holding the short straws have to sit on the floor. Acevedo perched on the edge of the stool and leaned forward. With her hands cupped between her knees as though in wide-eyed prayer, she began her story.

Acevedo, 29, and her four children—ages 13, 11, five, and three—lived in Downtown LA for 12 years. After losing her job selling clothes, she was forced to relocate three months ago to a much cheaper unit at Jordan Downs—or what was purported to be a cheaper unit. The $600 that she currently pays was supposed to be $400, and three months in, she’s still trying get her rent reduced to something manageable for an unemployed single mother of four.

Acevedo does get food stamps, but in order to pay for rent, electricity, extra food for her children, clothes, gas for her car, and a spreadsheet’s worth of daily expenses, she turns to her friends for financial support—all her family live in Mexico. There’s no spare cash for furnishings. She’s exhausted with worry; the dark shadows haunting her face betray countless sleepless nights. But Acevedo’s concerns extend beyond the immediate. An even greater worry to her is that she has been forced to relocate somewhere that potentially poses a major health risk to her and her children. “When I came here, they never said anything about the development project or the contamination,” she said. “They kept their mouths closed… and I’m worried for my kids because lead is very dangerous.”

The Jordan Downs urban redevelopment project has been decades in the imagination, years in the works, and months under the glow of a green light—a major landmark for a community long bedeviled by crime, poverty, and unemployment. Last August, the Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved plans to raze the current 700 units and replace them with approximately 1,800 mixed-income apartments along with chain stores and new streetscapes in order create “a vibrant urban village and model for public housing developments throughout the country,” according to the city’s five-year plan for South Los Angeles. This urban village was going to cost around $1 billion. Current government subsidized tenants have been promised one-for-one rehousing, as long as they remain in good standing with the Housing Authority. The full scope of the project hinges on a $30 million Choice Neighborhood Initiative Grant—a sought-after federal grant likely to be awarded in May.

At the center of Jordan Downs is a 21-acre L-shaped industrial site called the “Factory.” Now vacant, adorned mostly with rubble and weeds, the Factory abuts the residential complex; the two are separated by an eight-foot-high brick wall with holes large enough for a child to crawl through. This is the source of everyone’s fears.

A 2011 Human Health Risk Assessment (HHRA) concluded that the site contains elevated levels of lead, arsenic, trichloroethylene (TCE), and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), stating that the “results indicate that lead does pose an unacceptable hazard to children in a residential scenario.” All the contaminants listed pose major health risks, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, including cancer and autoimmune and neurological diseases. A Housing Authority interoffice memo from 2009 said, “Jordan Downs revitalization efforts will include development of other parcels including the parcel on which the 700 units are currently located. It is quite possible that these properties might also suffer from environmental contamination and therefore might require remediation.”

As a result of the HHRA’s findings, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) commissioned a Remedial Action Plan. While HACLA agreed to excavate and move 33,600 cubic yards of soil from the Factory—at a cost of around $8 million—the residential land remains unmentioned. Even after a recent ExxonMobil pipeline groundwater investigation in which the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) sent a letter to the Housing Authority that concluded that “groundwater sampling conducted as part of the M-145/M-8 Pipeline investigation and remediation by EXXON-Mobil Corporation has indicated that groundwater adjacent to the site has been impacted by petroleum hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds,” the DTSC has recommended further evaluation only on the northeastern edge of the Factory—not beyond the wall. The DTSC has yet to sign off on the Remedial Action Plan.

Lenny Siegel, executive director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight (CPEO), a nonprofit, said he has advocated for months that testing be extended beyond the Factory’s boundary. He believes that from the limited data produced thus far, further testing for TCE vapor intrusion (a carcinogen) should be conducted in residential areas at least beyond the north and south boundary of the wall.

“It’s strange to me that you would have indications of TCE with so little sampling… and you don’t have a reading that high and contamination stop at the property line [of the Factory],” Siegel told me. “A property boundary does not define the catchment area of groundwater contamination.”

David Pettit, a senior attorney of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), an environmental advocacy group, thinks along similar lines. In fall of last year, the Housing Authority circulated a leaflet among the residents designed to allay fears of contamination-related health risks. The flyer says outright, “There is currently no risk to residents.” The leaflet also states that “collections of soil vapor revealed that Volatile Organic Compounds [an umbrella term under which TCE falls] do not pose a risk for future residents.” Pettit believes that contrary to what the leaflet states, thorough testing on the residential properties needs to be conducted before such assertions can be made.

“The concern, in essence, is that there’s nothing [that’s] been done to investigate soil conditions or soil vapor conditions in the [residential] site,” said Pettit. “The reason I have concerns is, given the neighborhood where this is, I would think you’d want to know whether the people living on the existing units are at risk. And that analysis just hasn’t been done. The thing is, if they build this [development] and people are getting sick because of pollutants that the Housing Authority knows about now, there’s tremendous liability for them down the road.”

Decades of heavy industrialization in and around Jordan Downs means that there are reasons beyond the environmental report’s findings to think that residents are at high risk of contamination, according Pettit. A disused smelting plant from the 1960s sits vacant not far from the housing project. In 2004, 1,250 tons of soil were excavated from the David Starr Jordan High School football field after elevated levels of lead and PCBs were discovered—a result of an explosion at the nearby S&W Atlas Iron and Metal Company recycling facility two years prior. Another lead cleanup operation is currently being conducted at the high school.

Pettit believes that the Remedial Plan falls short of safeguarding residents from lead exposure. “Lead is a neurotoxin that affects brain development. What you see are communities affected by lead that have lower IQs than surrounding communities,” he said. “Once a kid takes it in, the effects are irreversible. Let’s not forget, this is a multi-family project. There’s going to be lots of kids around, and I do know that there is no safe level for lead. I felt the cleanup plan that the DTSC came up with was not health-protective enough.”

In an email, the DTSC stated that using the environmental evaluations conducted following USEPA’s methodology, the highest concentrations of contaminants found in soils onsite would not pose a risk to offsite residents or the school from wind-blown dust. “However, DTSC cannot comment on the impacts of past operations at the site or the surrounding neighborhood, as DTSC did not oversee these processes. It should be noted that testing for contaminants in the surrounding communities will not answer the question as to the source of the contaminants itself. For example, lead-based paint and leaded gasoline were routinely used until the 1970s. Lead-based paint is still part of many of the older buildings. Therefore, finding lead in the surrounding properties would not automatically mean that the site was the source.”

According to Doug Guthrie, the Housing Authority’s president and CEO, officials knew when they acquired the site that a cleanup process would be necessary, and the Housing Authority and developers have complied with all demands made by the DTSC. “We’ve always been very open with all the testing that we’ve done there,” he said. “We entered into a voluntary agreement with the DTSC. We’ve been very cooperative and open when it comes to ensuring that we’re doing the right thing by the residents. At this point in time, we will do whatever the DTSC tells us to do to clean the site.”

Undeterred, community activists have promised to keep pushing for testing beyond the wall’s boundaries. Thelmy Perez, the Housing Collective coordinator at Los Angeles Community Action Network, has worked for months bringing together a collective of residents, advocates, and activists, all of whom she says are concerned for the immediate health of people living at Jordan Downs.

“Where you have a Housing Authority that isn’t being accountable to the residents and is not being transparent about the threat of toxins in the area, it obviously generates a lot of fear in the community,” said Perez. “There are 700 families who live at Jordan Downs and their health is a priority—or it should be a priority.