Jordan Downs Residents Win One, But Want Full Data on Toxics

Residents of the Jordan Downs public housing community in Watts, Los Angeles, recently achieved a major win with their landlord, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). But resideints continue to press for a comprehensive assessment of toxic risks at Jordan Downs.

Residents of the Jordan Downs public housing community in Watts, Los Angeles, recently achieved a major win with their landlord, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA). Living adjacent to a brownfield, which (as we’ve previously blogged) was found to contain dangerous levels of heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, residents have long been concerned that construction activities during the seven-year redevelopment of Jordan Downs could unearth and kick up contaminated soil, exposing the community to potentially serious health hazards. As part of their years-long environmental justice campaign, residents recently were able to convince HACLA to turn the taps back on and allow community residents to water their lawns (in compliance with the City of Los Angeles Water Conservation Ordinance) to help suppress potentially toxic dust from becoming airborne.

HACLA’s decision to implement this community-driven solution is one step towards protecting the community from potential exposure to airborne toxics. But another step would be to fully understand what is in the soil at Jordan Downs. Jordan Downs residents have for years been demanding a comprehensive assessment of toxic risks at Jordan Downs. To date HACLA has not conducted such an assessment, but two rounds of limited testing at the Jordan Downs residential site revealed levels of lead contamination in excess of the California Human Health screening level of 80 ppm—the exposure level that places children at an unacceptable risk of decreasing their IQ by one point.

Two years ago, as a result of community organizing, HACLA conducted limited testing around the perimeter of the brownfield that lies adjacent to the residential areas. They found that about half of the samples exceeded the 80 ppm California Human Health Screening Level, with the highest sample registering at 145 ppm. Yet the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) decided that No Further Action be taken—meaning that no additional testing would be done and no remedial measures would be implemented. To justify its inaction, DTSC concluded that the 95% upper confidence limit of the average of all the samples, which was above the screening level at 81.3 ppm, was “essentially the same” as the 80 ppm screening level and “consistent” with levels of lead found in “urban areas” of Los Angeles.

Complicating matters, a Public Records Act request filed last year revealed that some DTSC staff, including the senior staffer who signed off on the Jordan Downs No Further Action decision, had been exchanging racially charged emails. An Independent Review Panel is investigating the agency and announced in April that it would be re-examining the decision not to pursue further testing at Jordan Downs as part of its investigation. While a third-party assessment of the No Further Action determination is ongoing, HACLA is moving forward with the redevelopment. 

More recently, results from testing done in preparation for the demolition of buildings 1 through 4 in connection with the phased redevelopment found lead concentrations as high as 147 ppm, with an average of 80.15 ppm. In a letter summarizing the results, DTSC failed to even mention the actual testing results and simply concluded that “it does not appear that metals are of concern to future residents in this specific area.”

HACLA has indicated it will conduct additional lead testing during its seven-year phased demolition and construction process. Still, as of now most of Jordan Downs has not been tested, and residents are left guessing about the toxic risks in their soil for the next seven years.

About 700 families live in the Jordan Downs housing development. Most residents are Latino or African-American, and a large proportion is children under age 18. For families to know what is in their yards and know their kids can safely play outside should be a basic concern of HACLA and DTSC. Soil testing requires minimal resources. In a 2010 inter-office memo, HACLA estimated that testing would cost about $10,000. The watering victory is an important one for the residents, but comprehensive environmental testing is ultimately the only way that residents can have the information to be able to make the most informed decisions regarding the health of their families and their community.

Thanks to my colleague Heather Kryczka for contributing to this post.

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