On a Friday afternoon in March, leaders from one of the most powerful environmental agencies in California joined environmental justice and public health advocates at the Jordan Downs community in Watts to participate in a toxic tour, highlighting years of environmental degradation and neglect. Newly appointed director of the Department of Toxics Substances Control (DTSC), Barbara Lee, and Arsenio Mataka, Assistant Secretary for Environmental Justice and Tribal Affairs at the California Environmental Protection Agency, were presented with a vibrant community, but one riddled with contaminated land, industrial sources of pollution, and constant toxic air emissions. The organizers and residents were clear about their ask: conduct comprehensive remediation of contaminated sites and the surrounding area, make the process transparent, and create opportunities for meaningful community participation.
Jordan Downs is a public housing community of 700 African American and Latino low-income families, many of whom are single mothers with children. Geographically, the community is surrounded by several major freeways and bordered by Alameda Street – an industrial corridor and “big rig” thoroughfare. There are nearly two dozen cleanup sites within a 1.5-mile radius, at least five of which are adjacent to the community. In 2008, the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) purchased a 21-acre industrial site situated in the middle of the Jordan Downs community – known to residents as the “factory site.” At that time, HACLA announced its plan to demolish the Jordan Downs public housing complex and turn it over to a private developer for redevelopment into a mixed-used housing community.[pullquote1 quotes=”true” align=”left” textColor=”#78963c”]With prolonged exposure to this chemical cocktail, the residents of Jordan Downs continue to be vulnerable to adverse mental and physical health effects.[/pullquote1]While HACLA agreed to work with DTSC to remediate the factory site after finding elevated levels of lead, arsenic, benzene, naphthalene, and other contaminants of concern, it did not agree to consider the contamination in relationship to surrounding hazards, nor to assess the social and health vulnerability of nearby residents. Several scientific studies indicate that these toxicants can impact a range of health outcomes, from developmental growth and reproductive health, to behavioral challenges, and in some cases they have been shown to cause cancer. With prolonged exposure to this chemical cocktail, the residents of Jordan Downs continue to be vulnerable to adverse mental and physical health effects.
In 2013, PSR-LA’s joined forces with local advocates to promote a health protective approach to proper remediation at Jordan Downs. As part of our recommendations, we urged HACLA to guarantee that redevelopment also ensured a one-to-one replacement of existing affordable housing units so that residents are not displaced from their homes. In the last couple of years, advocates and residents have fought to make sure HACLA and DTSC live up to their promises to clean up the land and ensure a healthy and stable future for the residents of the Jordan Downs community. PSR-LA has been the leading health voice at Jordan Downs, connecting residents with materials on the health impacts of contaminants of concern, lending our health voice in policy and legislative advocacy, and engaging our health professionals in these efforts.During the March tour of the site, PSR-LA Health Ambassador Dr. Tatianne Velo spoke with Jordan Downs residents about the health symptoms associated with exposure to main contaminants of concern, emphasizing the risk of long term and cumulative exposure.
But organizing and advocating at the local level only resolves part of the problem. When viewed in the context of regulation and enforcement, the adverse environmental health conditions that exist in Jordan Downs and at many other sites across the state will continue to persist unless agencies comprehensively address industrial contamination through proper permitting and meaningful community engagement. This is central to the petition of a coalition of statewide residents – called the People’s Senate – living in and adjacent to toxic sites. In March following the toxic tour, they delivered a letter to Barbara Lee demanding real and expansive reform at DTSC, as well as site specific benchmarks. Some key demands of the People’s Senate include: urging the establishment of an accountability body and community oversight committee to increase transparency of the decision-making process; development of a standardized permitting criterion to stop hazardous facilities from operating under expired permits; and increase fines for violators and reinvestment in pollution prevention and source reduction programs.
One promising approach to enact DTSC reform is through statewide legislation. At the beginning of the year, Senator Ricardo Lara in collaboration with our ally and People’s Senate convener the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment (CRPE), introduced Senate Bill 673. The bill does three things: first, it create a California Communities Committee to advise DTSC on increasing transparency and public participation in its decision making; second, it requires DTSC to adopt regulations establishing additional permitting criteria including consideration of social vulnerability of nearby residents; and third, it requires the agency to develop and implement particular programmatic reforms. If passed and signed by the Governor, the bill would set the stage for proper reform at DTSC. SB 673 is a critical element in ensuring DTSC lives up to its promise to protect Jordan Downs and other vulnerable communities from environmental harm.