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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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.)Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Maywood, Califorinia: The city that said 'No'
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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.