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Toxic soil at Jordan Downs: Massive cleanup fails where LA plans to build new shops, restaurants

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They have a plan to protect tenants, but watchdog groups say it doesn’t go far enough

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When the first phase of construction on the major overhaul of the Jordan Downs public housing complex is finished next year, it will bring 115 new apartments to a once-industrial area of Watts. Future waves of construction will add even more housing, plus nine acres of open space, a community center, and a retail center comprised of shops, restaurants, and a much-anticipated grocery store.

At a jubilant groundbreaking in June, it was the project’s commercial real estate developer, Arturo Sneider, CEO of Primestor Development, Inc., who closed out a string of hopeful speeches from politicians and developers, telling the exuberant crowd: “You’re sitting right now right about where the produce will be.”

What those sitting there may not have known is that the city’s 17-month effort to clean up the property had failed.

Tests performed on the site of the planned retail center have uncovered elevated levels of two chemicals, trichloroethene and tetrachloroethene, that can cause birth defects and cancer. In response, state regulators released a draft plan in May to protect future workers from longterm exposure to the toxins, which were detected below the surface in groundwater and soil vapors.

A final plan is due out in the coming weeks, and watchdog groups fear it will be the latest example of city officials and state regulators not doing enough to protect the health of particularly vulnerable tenants.

“When you have a dire situation like with Jordan Downs, it requires a solution that goes above and beyond,” says Monika Shankar, director of health and environment programs for the Los Angeles chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Lot 1, which is contaminated with two carcinogens, is outlined in green.
Lot 1—the area contaminated with elevated levels of trichloroethene and tetrachloroethene—is outlined in green.
Via Department of Toxic Substances Control

Many of Jordan Downs’ roughly 2,400 residents are among the poorest in the city of Los Angeles; about half are children. The Census tract ranks in the highest percentile on the California Environmental Protection Agency’s index of communities most affected by and most vulnerable to pollution, contamination, and other environmental hazards.

The 1950s-era housing complex is being rebuilt on a neighboring swath of land that spreads, in the shape of an L, across 21 acres. In 2008, the city bought the land, which was laced with lead, arsenic, and other dangerous remnant waste from a steel mill, and later, a trucking operation once housed on the property.

In 2016, the city started the process of hauling away 259,375 tons of toxic dirt and replacing it with clean, imported soil.

Deeper in the ground, on a northern section of the property called Lot 1, tests had also uncovered elevated levels of two more toxic chemicals, trichloroethene (TCE) and (PCE), that had migrated there from an off-site source, possibly an ExxonMobile Corporation pipeline under South Alameda Street.

Exposure to TCE can affect birthweight and cause congenital heart defects in babies. PCE has been linked to neurological conditions, including impaired vision and headaches, says Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine in the environmental health division of USC’s Keck School of Medicine. Both are carcinogens.

The city waited to see if its dirt-replacing operation would reduce or eliminate TCE and PCE. The draft plan released in May by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control reveals that it did not.

The plan also indicates that the department will require vapor barriers to be placed beneath buildings in the planned retail center and for Lot 1 to be deed-restricted to commercial uses. That would stop single-family homes and daycare centers from being built there, for example, says Sayareh Amirebrahimi, chief of the department’s clean-up division in Southern California.

Vapor barriers, which are typically synthetic liners or sheets of plastic, would prevent the chemicals from wafting up from the groundwater and into the buildings, says Amirebrahimi. The vapors would otherwise “pose a risk to the people who will work inside,” she says.

An aerial rendering of the redeveloped Jordan Downs. Construction on the first phase of housing is underway now; work on the retail center is set to start in the spring of 2018.
Courtesy of Bridge Housing

Government agencies and private developers routinely and safely transform once-contaminated land, and Amirebrahimi says it’s becoming very common to use vapor barriers in the process.

But advocates say the state and city are dismissing concerns about the contaminated plume moving toward new residences planned outside but adjacent to the retail center. They want barriers underneath the new homes, too.

“This is not a plan to clean up contamination. It’s a plan to prevent it from moving through the foundations of the commercial buildings,” says Alexander Harnden, an attorney with Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles. “It does nothing to keep that incredibly dangerous stuff from moving towards the housing and nothing to build in a contingency if that does happen.”

The Department of Toxic Substances Control says that’s not necessary. Amirebrahimi says a “significant amount” of testing has been done across the 21-acre site—and that there’s no health risk on any section except Lot 1. “We haven’t seen this type of contamination in other areas. And we don’t expect it to continue toward housing,” she says.

The city’s housing authority agrees. “The general direction of the water flow based on years of study in that area is that it flows southeast, away from the residential, not toward the residential,” says Ramin Kianfar, the agency’s senior project manager.

The May plan states otherwise. It says the groundwater actually flows south and southwest—potentially, Harnden says, toward non-commercial areas, including homes and planned recreational fields where children will play. Kianfar did not respond to a request to clarify why he said the water flowed southeast.

Johnston, the USC professor, says toxins in groundwater and soil vapors do migrate but they often dilute as the plume grows. “It's hard to judge the rate at which this will happen [at Jordan Downs] without a lot of groundwater characterization,” she says.

Kianfar says the city will continue testing the site “for the foreseeable future ... until data is presented affirmatively that there’s no additional risk to the residents.”

But there’s some gray area in determining that risk.

After the dirt on the 21-acre property had been replaced, tests found concentrations of TCE on Lot 1 as high as 8.34 parts per billion parts (ppb), which is 1.4 times and 16.6 times higher than the California Human Health Screening Levels for commercial and residential properties, respectively, according to data provided by the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The results were similar for PCE, with concentrations discovered at 1.3 times and 11 the commercial and residential levels.

The human health screening level is essentially the threshold for cancer risk. State regulators don’t calculate that risk. Instead, the math is left up to private contractors, in this case, Anderson Environmental, a firm that’s working for the city and Bridge Housing to conduct the testing and to propose mitigation measures, such as the vapor barriers.

Lenny Siegel, executive director of a nonprofit watchdog Center for Public Environmental Oversight, says he doesn’t entirely trust that process. He says the firms usually don’t test often enough—soil vapor levels can vary depending on the weather—and they’re allowed to tweak the computer models used to come up with the risk level, sometimes producing numbers that don’t raise any flags for the state.

“They might be right. But I wouldn’t bet my kid’s health on it,” he says.

That’s why advocates working in Jordan Downs want the state to force the city to do more.

“They're recommending vapor barriers below the slabs, but they're not necessarily suppressing the size of this plume,” Shankar, with the physicians group, says. “What happens hypothetically speaking if this plume starts migrating farther and ends up under the residential buildings?”