Public Housing Residents in Jordan Downs Demand Transparency and Accountability on the Presence and Clean-up of Toxins

IMG_6668 copy

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.”