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The city that said ‘no’

Maywood, Calif., has become a ‘culture of participation’ to help solve its pollution problems, particularly with contaminated water.

By Janet WilsonContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2009

City officials worry about long-term exposure to contaminants in Maywood, Calif., part of which is on a Superfund site.

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor


Maywood, Calif.

On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Jesus Padilla flipped on the spigot in his front yard. Tea-colored water spurted out.

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“We got a nightmare here,” says Mr. Padilla, a retired machinist who has lived here for 30 years. His wife, Francisca, rushed out clutching a mug of dirty water from a faucet inside.

“Every day I wash my clothes, I cook, I clean with this water!” she said. “We worry about this water all the time.”

When residents of this city in southeast Los Angeles County turn on their taps, brown, yellow, red, or even brackish black water often pours out. State regulators admit that it can stain clothes, smell or taste awful, and, on occasion, contain manganese, lead, trichloroethylene, and other contaminants. But they say it is safe. Local water district officials insist they are doing their best in a poor city that cannot afford millions to replace crumbling pipes.

Local residents aren’t surprised. “Maywood isn’t like Hollywood,” says longtime resident Jose Melendrez. “Nobody knows about us. These little places that nobody knows about, nobody cares about, so we get picked on.”

Across the country, studies have increasingly shown that low-income, minority communities endure a disproportionate share of poor living conditions and contamination. A 2007 study by four universities found that nonwhites are far more likely to live near hazardous waste than whites. Greater Los Angeles led the nation with 1.2 million people living less than two miles from such waste, 91 percent of them minorities.

Maywood, the state’s most densely populated community, is a textbook case. Eight miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles, it sits at the crossroads of an American manufacturing and freight-hauling juggernaut with a legacy of industrial pollution. Nearly 50,000 residents – 98 percent Latino – are squeezed into aging apartment blocks and tidy tract houses between diesel-truck-clogged Interstate 710 and “exclusively industrial” Vernon, home to 1,200 factories and sprawling freight rail yards.

A mile upwind is the West’s largest lead-battery recycler, which has been cited for emitting triple the legal amounts of lead. Residents regularly are wakened by foul odors from slaughterhouse rendering plants and breathe diesel soot and lead-paint particles. Federal regulators say the Superfund site on which part of

Maywood sits is now 99 percent clean. But city officials fret about long-term, cumulative exposure.

“Everything that you don’t want in your backyard is packed into one square mile called Maywood,” says Councilman Felipe Aguirre, a community organizer and immigration advocate who was elected four years ago.

Maywood is also a community ripe for change. Scores of residents angrily pack public hearings.

“More than anything else, we’ve been able to create a culture of participation,” said Mr. Aguirre. “A lot of people who are here became citizens through amnesty ... and now they’re exercising their democratic rights. So now we see what happens when a community that was bedraggled and really exposed to a lot of negative things comes together and becomes organized.”

Others – particularly water officials – say that Aguirre and other activists are spreading false information and unfairly alarming people.

“People are ready to hang me from my neck or my feet,” said Gustavo Villa, general manager of Maywood Mutual Water Co. No. 2, which has the most severe manganese problems. A former truck driver and immigrant himself, he took over the company with neighbors a decade ago, and says he is pushing for improvements that mean unpopular moves such as increased water rates. Mr. Villa says that he helped Aguirre and other reformers get elected, but they have turned on him.