As part of the fallout from a scandal over racially-charged emails, California's Department of Toxic Substances Control is reviewing its two-year-old decision to take no action on lead contamination at the Jordan Downs housing complex in Watts.
Toxic Substances Control agreed to reevaluate the decision as part of a broader review of cases involving the senior agency scientist who had approved the original "No Further Action" determination.
The agency is taking another look at every case over the past five years involving the scientist, senior toxicologist William Bosan, and his colleague Theo Johnson, a senior geologist. Toxic Substances Control disciplined the pair last fall for sending emails to one another that mocked co-workers of various ethnicities.
Bosan signed off on the Jordan Downs decision to take no further action in 2014 after elevated levels of lead were found at the housing complex.
"What little reliability that determination may have had ... was completely destroyed by this revelation of rampant racism within an agency that is tasked with protecting these communities," says Alexander Harnden, an attorney for Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles.
Jordan Downs is home to nearly 700 families. More than half of the residents are children and nearly all are Latino or African-American, says Perez.
A toxic site next door
This is the latest twist in the city's long-running effort to have a private developer build mixed-use housing and retail on the land that encompasses Jordan Downs and a former steel mill site that sits next to the complex, separated by a chain link fence.
The Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles bought the 21-acre steel mill site - now a huge expanse of dirt - in 2008 for $31 million. In 2011, the area was found be contaminated with lead, arsenic, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls. Lead levels were as high as 22,000 parts per million.
Lead is a neurotoxin that is particularly harmful to young children and pregnant women.
Crews have been digging up and removing thousands of cubic yards of toxic dirt from the site for more than a year.
The discovery of toxic pollution at the mill site scared Jordan Downs residents and activists, who began pushing for testing in the sprawling housing complex, where bare soil is visible in yards, underneath clotheslines and around play equipment. They argued that the pollution could easily have migrated to Jordan Downs during the years the factory was in operation and since cleanup crews began stirring up large clouds of dust.
Two years ago the housing authority agreed to test a strip of soil a few feet wide on the Jordan Downs side of the chain link fence where a number of housing units border the site.
"That testing revealed there were elevated levels of lead and arsenic in the residential areas," says Thelmy Perez, a community organizer for the L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective.
About half of the 30 samples had elevated levels of lead – ranging from 80 parts per million to 145 parts per million. Toxic Substances Control has set 80 ppm as the threshold for triggering removal of lead from residential areas.
A surprise for activists
Perez says activists were surprised when Toxic Substances Control issued its "No Further Action" determination.
Rather than consider each sample separately, the agency took the average of the results from all of the samples. That average was about 80 parts per million; while the state says that is the level that indicates the need for a cleanup, the Toxic Substances Control assessment approved by Bosan said the agency did not need to take action because "[t]hese concentrations of lead are consistent with ambient levels of lead found in urban areas of Los Angeles."
It’s common practice to average soil samples, says Toxic Substances Control spokesman Russ Edmondson. He said none of the agency’s experts were available to discuss the matter further.
Activists and some outside experts say averaging samples leaves hot spots of contamination that need to be addressed.
"Typically, best practice is to look at the soil samples individually and try to understand what is going on rather than lumping all of the data together," says Jill Johnston, who teaches environmental health at the University of Southern California.
Another factor that can affect test results is the depth at which samples are taken, she says. It’s unclear at which depth the residential samples were taken at Jordan Downs.
"We’re mostly concerned [with] the top level of soil that could get on your hands, what kids can play in, what you can be most exposed to potential contaminates," says Johnston.
Despite the review, plans for demolition continue
The activists' arguments did not persuade Toxic Substances Control. It only agreed to revisit the "no further action" decision after Bosan's and Johnson's emails surfaced last fall. The agency informed local activists of the review in a March letter; it does not know how long the process will take, says spokesman Edmondson.
Despite the review, L.A.'s Housing Authority is moving ahead with its plans to begin demolition at Jordan Downs. Last week it approved a contract to knock down four multi-unit buildings there. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development must approve the demolition plan.
Because of the uncertainty over the lead in the soil at Jordan Downs, activists say many families have been keeping their kids inside. Eleazar Acevedo, a mother of five children ages 1 to 16 is one of the parents not letting their youngsters play outdoors.
"I think the contamination brought many problems for my children," she says. "They get very bad coughs for no reason. The baby was born with respiratory problems and was in the hospital for a week. But the doctors don’t find anything."
Latoya White wants more information about the site next door. Her two daughters Tylyn and Tyonnie often ride a bike outside or hang out with their friends.
"The only thing they do is send us newsletters saying it was contaminated," she says about the former steel mill site. "They say everything is fine for us. But I believe it might be impacting us because of the dust, but I don’t know."
"I'm scared, but what can I do?"
Another Jordan Downs mom, Elda Lemos, has attended several community meetings hosted by activists about the issue. Lemos worries especially about her 5-year-old autistic son. She wonders if the environment contributed to his condition or exacerbated it. So she keeps him inside as much as possible.
Lemos is also concerned because she's pregnant.
"I'm scared, but what can I do?" she says, noting that she can't move her family elsewhere because she's currently unemployed.
While community groups wait for the agency’s decision they continue to push for action.
A coalition of groups called the Better Watts Initiative recently rented an X-ray fluorescence analyzer – typically used to measure metals in soil – and tested 104 samples taken at Jordan Downs.
In a letter sent to Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee last week, the coalition says its tests turned up 50 more soil samples with high levels of lead at Jordan Downs, some as high as four times the actionable level.