Don't Rebuild Jordan Downs On Polluted Soil

Jordan Downs is a 700-unit low-income housing complex in South Los Angeles.  Originally constructed as housing units for returning WWII veterans, the apartments on site were built in the 1940s.  The current tenants are  Latino and African-American families, mostly headed by single  mothers.  Jordan Downs is owned and run by the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles.

In August, 2013, the City of Los Angeles approved a plan to tear down Jordan Downs and replace it with a mixed-use development that will, in the words of the Los Angeles Times, “turn the often-dangerous housing development of 700 derelict units into a mixed-income community of up to 1,800 stylish new apartments, along with chain stores and new streetscapes — all designed to attract higher-income people to move into the area and live alongside some of the city's poorest.”

What these “higher –income people” may not know is the history of industrial pollution at and near the Jordan Downs site.  The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) has been involved with the site for years.  DTSC has prepared a draft remedial action plan for part of the site, which has a history that DTSC describes as:  “Historical site use included steel manufacturing, trucking operations and waste storage. DTSC identified contaminants in the soil from industrial operations at the site consistent with steel manufacturing, trucking related operations and the storage of engine oil and oil wastes, fuels (diesel and gasoline), paint thinner and electric transformers.”

In addition, there was a metal recycling company adjacent to the site for many years.  An explosion occurred there in 2002 that led to a DTSC-supervised remediation of the Jordan High School baseball field, which was found to be contaminated with lead and other metals.  A look at DTSC’s Envirostor database shows that there are over two dozen DTSC-supervised cleanup sites within 3 miles of Jordan Downs. 

Not surprisingly, this history of contaminated soils is of concern to current tenants who, under the City of L.A. plan, will be shuttled around the Jordan Downs site as redevelopment progresses in stages.  Three community groups have been working with the tenants:  the Los Angeles  Human Right to Housing Collective (and the Collective’s Jordan Downs Tenant Committee), Los Angeles Community Action Network and Physicians For Social Responsibility – Los Angeles.  NRDC is helping these organizations deal with the issues of contaminated soil and vapor intrusion from the soil into the tenants’ homes. 

The first orders of business when soil contamination is suspected are to find out what it is, where it is, and how much of it there is.  DTSC did some investigation on the now-vacant part of the site and is telling the tenants not to worry about health risks.  However, a human health risk analysis (HRA)  commissioned by the Housing Authority concluded that:  “"The results of this HRA indicate this site does not pose an unacceptable adverse impact to future onsite construction workers, commercial workers or recreational park users. However, the results indicate the site does pose an unacceptable risk to residential users, due to lead and Aroclor-1254 in the soil matrix and naphthalene in the soil vapor."  By the way, you won’t find that HRA on the DTSC or LA Housing Authority web sites.  Thelmy Perez of the LA Human right to Housing Collective found it by tracking down its author and asking her for a copy. 

It’s understandable why DTSC and the Housing Authority would want to make their own HRA hard to find.  Lead is a very dangerous pollutant, especially to young children.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have reported that:  “The adverse health effects of lead exposure in children are well described and include intellectual and behavioral deficits, making lead exposure an important public health problem... No safe blood lead level (BLL) in children has been identified.” 

Aroclor-1254 is a polychlorinated biphenyl, or PCB, a group of substances so toxic that production of PCBs in the U.S. was banned in 1979.  PCBs are often found where electrical transformers were used, stored, repaired or discarded. 

Naphthalene is commonly used in mothballs and insecticides.  According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency:  “[a]cute (short-term) exposure of humans to naphthalene by inhalation, ingestion, and dermal contact is associated with hemolytic anemia, damage to the liver, and neurological damage.  Cataracts have also been reported in workers acutely exposed to naphthalene by inhalation and ingestion.  Chronic (long-term) exposure of workers and rodents to naphthalene has been reported to cause cataracts and damage to the retina.. .  .  EPA has classified naphthalene as a Group C, possible human carcinogen.”

These data call out for additional site investigation. For example,  Lenny Siegel has an article on the vapor intrusion issues on the site here; vapor intrusion, as explained by the U.S. EPA, “generally occurs when there is a migration of volatile chemicals from contaminated groundwater or soil into an overlying building.”  Without a fulll investigation of this and other issues on the entire Jordan Downs site, it would be irresponsible folly to build a new development at a location where very dangerous chemicals and metals are known to exist.  And these data were taken only from the currently-undeveloped portion of the site – we don’t know in detail what exists or may exist in the soil and soil vapor under the 700 units that are now occupied. 

The Jordan Downs tenants have been active and vocal in expressing their concerns to DTSC and to the L.A. Housing Authority.  NRDC and our community allies have taken these concerns to the office of Congresswoman Janice Hahn, whose staff quickly understood the public health risk at Jordan Downs.  What we are looking for is a comprehensive area-wide investigation into what pollutants of concern may exist and an honest and detailed soil and soil vapor study of the entire Jordan Downs site.  The current tenants and the City’s desired new tenants deserve no less.