The city that said ‘no’
Maywood, Calif., has become a ‘culture of participation’ to help solve its pollution problems, particularly with contaminated water.
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Many residents don’t care about the political squabbling. They just want clean water. Padilla became a US citizen two years ago, although he emigrated from Mexico at age 16. He keeps two cheerful red, white, and blue “I voted” stickers in his wallet, next to his driver’s license.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Maywood, Califorinia: The city that said 'No'
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He also is now a member of some of the community groups that do lead testing in apartments with children, water monitoring, and political outreach.
“I joined because of the water,” he says. He and his wife live on his modest pension of about $550 a month. Even $10 a week for bottled water is a steep price in a city where unemployment is 17 percent and 1 in 4 live below the federal poverty level.
After Padilla and others lugged jars of dirty water to the state capital, in October legislators passed a law requiring Maywood water officials to do a comprehensive analysis of the system’s problems. They also tucked $8 million for the city into the state’s gargantuan, $11 billion water-bond proposal that will go before voters next year.
Impressed by both the problems and the community activism in Maywood, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Los Angeles field office and the deputy director of California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) enforcement arm have convened meetings of federal, state, and regional regulators and community leaders to step up enforcement and to encourage them to together address top community concerns. The aim of the joint initiative is for agencies accustomed to tackling a single area – air pollution, for instance, or soil contamination – to instead work together. Residents here have complained that they feel shunted between various agencies.
“The idea is not to be stuck in those little regulatory boxes,” says Steven John, head of the EPA’s southern California division. Toward that end, the agencies are also wrestling with bringing together bitterly divided factions in Maywood. At the first meeting of the joint agency initiative with the community in August, a water district manager and an activist ended up in a screaming match over a single mercury testing sample as a translator struggled to keep up with hurled insults.
The manager ultimately apologized. At least the two sides were talking, many said.
Mr. John says Maywood’s activism, however fractious, was extraordinary. “[W]hat really for me has been the hallmark of Maywood,” he says, “is the commitment from the citizens.”
In November, EPA dministrator Lisa Jackson named Maywood and its neighbors along the 710 freeway “environmental justice showcase” communities. She awarded $100,000 to the EPA’s regional office to work with the cities, starting with Maywood. In addition, she sent $160,000 to the state DTSC to spearhead joint agency efforts.
A survey done for the group effort easily identified Maywood residents’ priorities: clearing the water and stopping construction of a new school on possibly contaminated soil.
More than a feel-good measure?
It’s an open question whether the joint agency initiative is a feel-good measure or will produce actual change. Neither Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) nor the California Department of Public Health (CDPH), which oversees drinking water, is yet part of the effort.