The city that said ‘no’

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

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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    City officials worry about long-term exposure to contaminants in Maywood, Calif., part of which is on a Superfund site.
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On the Monday before Thanksgiving, Jesus Padilla flipped on the spigot in his front yard. Tea-colored water spurted out.

“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.”

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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.

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.

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.

The manager of one Maywood water company estimated it would cost $19.5 million to replace his 19 miles of pipe. State public health officials have ruled out giving any of the $159 million received in federal Recovery Act funds for water projects to Maywood, saying that projects proposed by the water companies either were not ready to go or did not rank high enough because other cities had more pressing health issues. (Some of that appears to be true, but Woodland, a middle-class community near Sacramento, ranked low on health problems yet got $15 million for new meters.)

Most of all, outsiders are impressed by Maywood’s extraordinary activism.

“I’ve never seen anything like it, never. It’s remarkable,” says Beth Dorris, a veteran corporate environmental attorney who was recently asked to speak with residents about how to battle the proposed new school. “I was brought to a garage with 100 people crammed in. Kids, too.”

Some serious concerns center on the risks imposed on the community by heavy industry. Mrs. Padilla has had multiple surgeries at a regional cancer hospital.

Family members think her woes may stem from her former job on industrial presses, where she was exposed to noxious fumes, combined with long-term exposure to environmental hazards in Maywood. But they admit they really don’t know.

Experts caution that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tie specific cases of illness to pollution, though thousands of studies have found links to troubling health impacts from contaminants.

A city’s slide

It’s no accident that Maywood ended up polluted. A century ago it was a pleasant bend off the Los Angeles River known for fertile soil and crystal-clear artesian water. Becky Nicolaides, author of “My Blue Heaven,” a history of south Los Angeles’s working-class suburbs, says that in 1908, Los Angeles passed the nation’s first major zoning ordinance, decreeing that industry would be situated southeast of downtown, while primarily residential areas would be developed on the west side of town.

In the mid-1900s, a chemical mixing plant opened next to the river in Maywood, alongside a food processing plant, wood-veneer factory, paint manufacturer, and other industries. Tidy housing tracts were built for factory workers. But later, many of the factories shut down. The chemical plant was declared a Superfund site in the late 1990s, with dozens of hazardous contaminants dribbling from storage tanks.

Maywood’s water woes are also tangled in history. The small city has three water companies, relics from a century ago when agricultural growers snapped up rights. Each is responsible for its own wells and miles of aging, sometimes sediment-encrusted, pipes that spit out rust, iron, and black manganese. Being a smaller district means they are subject to less bacterial monitoring and paperwork than larger water districts.

CDPH regulators have been aware of issues with Maywood’s drinking water for years, but say there is a difference between unpleasant and dangerous water.

The presence of manganese, the main reason the water appears dirty, occurs naturally in much of southern California’s soil and is not a health threat, they say.

“CDPH takes these aesthetic problems seriously; however, they do not constitute a human health issue,” said the agency in a statement.

Websites of the EPA and the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry say that manganese is a byproduct of steelmaking and welding industries, and auto exhaust. It is safe in low amounts, but, at sustained high levels of exposure, has been linked to serious health problems.

EPA regulators have declined to consider health limits on manganese in drinking water, saying “best available science” shows that limits weren’t necessary.

However, Connecticut has set protective limits, and the US Food and Drug Administration limits the amount in bottled water. California has set “secondary” limits to address aesthetic problems, at 50 micrograms per liter of water. Records show Maywood Water Districts No. 1 and No. 2 regularly exceed those amounts, although they don’t rise to levels cited in scientific studies as dangerous.

“That’s one drop in 42,000 gallons of water!” says Sergio Palos, general manager of Mutual Water Co. No. 1, about the secondary standards. He says that of 625 tests for manganese, his delivery system exceeded limits 12 times. Still, he knows that even “a very small, minute amount” can be noticeable.

New pipes, regulations

Clean water may be coming, slowly but surely: Mr. Palos will also buy costlier imported water to blend with the dirty well water. CDPH finally issued violations against Water Co. No. 1 and Water Co. No. 2 in 2008, ordering them to clean up the manganese to acceptable levels.

The agency said in a statement that it expects the problems will be fixed in 2010. Palos has replaced some of his oldest pipes and is working on replacing more gradually, as his low-income customers cannot afford huge rate increases. A regional water-replenishment district has loaned Water Co. No. 2 $900,000 for water treatment. State regulators also told Water Co. No. 3 to keep an eye on TCE (trichloroethylene), known as a carcinogen, which has been detected in one well, and to shut the well promptly if it exceeded legal limits.

An EPA spokeswoman says that the agency is currently reviewing TCE to see if there should be stricter limits. Jane Williams, head of California Communities Against Toxics, a large network of environmental justice groups, says that the agency has been reviewing it for five years, while people continue to drink unsafe water.

“Maywood is a classic example of these problems,” says Ms. Williams. “Manganese is not regulated at all, and TCE is regulated but underregulated. People are drinking TCE in Maywood, and they’re not even being notified.”

There is work on other fronts. As part of the joint agency initiative, the EPA is discussing partnering with a university engineering department to conduct communitywide water testing. State toxics enforcers are eyeing two dozen sites in Maywood and Vernon for further investigation. They hope to use residents as “eyes and ears” to pinpoint problem spots.

Most of all, there’s a sense that things are happening in Maywood, that its issues are finally being recognized.

“I just think the tenacity of the local activists there and the leadership in that community – that’s what’s making a difference there and that can’t be underscored enough,” says Williams. “It’s taken them a while, but people know where Maywood is now.”

Hector Alvarado of the community group Padres Unidos de Maywood, says of the recent attention: “Maywood es un milagro. It’s a miracle.”

This article was conceived and produced as a project for The Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund, administered by The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annen­berg School for Communcation & Jour­nalism. It was reported with fellowship funds.

Editor’s note: For more articles about the environment, see the Monitor’s main environment page, which offers information on many environment topics. Also, check out our Bright Green blog archive and our RSS feed.

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