Urgent: Proposed development on contaminated site in Lincoln Heights
Date: Fri, Mar 26, 2021
RE: Proposed Residential Project at 135–153 West Avenue 34;
Dear Dear Governor Newsom, Mayor Garcetti, and Hon. Los Angeles City Councilmembers,
I am writing to you today requesting action on an urgent threat to human health and safety in Lincoln Heights. This concerns a 468-unit development which includes affordable housing being built on a toxic spill site in a low-income residential neighborhood across the street from a public elementary school. The city has approved this project without the requisite evaluation of the risks posed by PCE, TCE, and other toxic contaminants present at this site. I learned today that DTSC might approve as soon as Monday, March 29 a proposal by the developer to only perform testing after the project commences, rather than testing or making an assessment of the cumulative risks prior to breaking ground, as mandated by state law. Furthermore, the Department of City Planning is attempting to unlawfully terminate an appeal to the City Council filed by neighboring residents that is simply asking that this project be paused until the proper environmental assessment is conducted, as required by state law.
Please give this matter the urgent attention it merits, and see to it that appropriate assessment is made now, and that residents' due process rights to appeal are vigorously defended. Please read the letter below detailing some of our concerns, signed by a wide array of concerned community organizations.
President, Lincoln Heights Community Coalition
Action Now * California Communities Against Toxics * California Kids IAQ * California Safe Schools * Clean Air Coalition * Coalition For A Safe Environment * Comite Pro Uno * Community Dreams * Del Amo Action Committee * EMERGE * Lincoln Heights Community Coalition * Mothers of East Los Angeles * NAACP, San Pedro-Wilmington Branch #1069 * Our Right To Know * Paramount Community Coalition Against Toxics * Resurrection Church * St. Philomena Social Justice Ministry * Stop Toxic Housing * Watts Labor Community Action Committee * Wilmington Improvement Network
March 26, 2021
Governor Gavin Newsom
1303 10th Street, Suite 1173
Sacramento, CA 95814
Mayor Eric Garcetti & Honorable Los Angeles City
200 N. Spring Street
Los Angeles, California 90012
RE: Proposed residential development built on a contaminated site in Lincoln Heights. Case No. Env-2016-2173-MND-REC1; Council File No. 21-0024
Dear Governor Newsom, Mayor Garcetti & Honorable Los Angeles City Councilmembers,
We are writing to express our concern about the proposed development of a 5-acre 468-unit residential project in Lincoln Heights (“subject property”). The subject property is immediately adjacent to the former Welch's dry-cleaning and truck refueling facility which operated from 1920-1988, and advertised itself as “America’s Largest Industrial Laundry.” The Welch’s site has a long history of toxic chemical discharges from leaking underground storage tanks, some as large as 10,000 gallons. Regulatory records of the site show extensive soil contamination and a shallow groundwater plume both onsite and along its southern boundary with the subject property. Despite these conditions the subject property has not been assessed for contamination which could threaten the health of existing community residents and future occupants of the proposed development. Below is a Site Vicinity Map showing the locations of the Welch’s site, the subject property, and adjoining sensitive land uses.
The City’s environmental review of this project has not effectively addressed the concerns from the neighborhood despite the likelihood of toxic contamination beneath the subject property and potentially other nearby sensitive uses including Hillside Elementary School, homes and local businesses. The Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Council has been diligent and persistent in raising these concerns to the City and requesting that it effectively assess conditions on the subject property before the development proceeds. We, the undersigned, have reviewed this matter, including communications between the Neighborhood Council and City Planning, and conclude that the City has not addressed these concerns in a way that represents the best interests of the community, future occupants of the development, or the City.
Based on the history of chemical releases and the results of previous testing on Welch's site, conditions on the subject property may pose an endangerment to the health of future occupants. Soil and shallow groundwater contamination emanating from Welch’s may also threaten the health of nearby existing residents, workers, and elementary school occupants. Reports from the State Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) show that the chemicals released on the Welch’s site included trichloroethylene (TCE), perchloroethylene (PCE), diesel, gasoline, benzene, chloroform, and other toxic chemicals. Airborne exposure to these chemicals can cause cancer, internal organ failure, and birth defects. When the extent of the contamination was uncovered in 1988, the State mandated the Welch’s facility be vacated and dismantled, and since then, the DTSC has provided regulatory oversight of assessment and cleanup work on the Welch’s site. However, it wasn’t until 2007 that active cleanup of the Welch’s site began.
DTSC mandated groundwater monitoring wells be installed both onsite and offsite in anticipation that the groundwater was carrying the toxic plume off-site to the Southwest; not Northwest as previously reported by the developer’s consultant (Source: Phase 1 Environmental Assessment for the subject property, Fulcrum Environmental, 2016). The monitoring results later confirmed the groundwater gradient is in fact toward the Southwest. Active monitoring wells continue to record levels of toxic contaminants exceeding State standards on and beyond the Welch’s site, and so presumably beneath the subject property. Much of the monitoring network and vapor extraction system was prematurely decommissioned or stopped working before reaching the target cleanup goals.
DTSC records also indicate that the highest concentration of toxic contaminants on the Welch’s site was at a point bordering the subject property, at the location where the project applicant has proposed excavation to construct a two-level subterranean parking lot. Dry-cleaning chemicals are especially volatile, posing a significant risk of toxic vapors being released during construction, and of traveling along underground utility corridors away from the original points of contamination. Such lateral movement or “migration” of volatile soil contaminants is exacerbated when trapped beneath concrete or asphalt, as has been the case for many decades on the subject property. These toxins can present a hazard when released during excavation and grading. Additionally, toxic vapors can migrate through underground utility corridors hundreds and potentially thousands of feet from a contaminated site and ultimately expose the occupants of homes or other enclosed structures. It is of critical importance to investigate this potential on properties located near sites where prior discharges of highly volatile chemicals have occurred.
The Amphenol Site in Indiana provides a good case study for releases of volatile compounds, like those released on the Welch’s site. U.S. EPA directed a comprehensive investigation of vapor intrusion originating at the Amphenol Site and migrating via soils, groundwater, and utility corridors into the adjoining residential community. Based on the initial findings, EPA directed a follow-up study to identify the extent to which toxic vapors were migrating along utility corridors and into homes. Vapors were found in homes at distances of nearly 1000 feet from the Amphenol Site. Vapor intrusion mitigation measures were implemented in homes where screening levels were exceeded.
With reference to the subject development, it is essential to define the extent to which PCE, TCE and other volatile contaminants on the former Welch’s site have migrated as vapors along underground utility corridors and intruded into adjacent properties. The “Vapor Intrusion Guidance” released by the DTSC in 2011, references the need to assess pathways by which toxic vapors may be migrating in subsurface soils, specifically along utility corridors, where they could be impacting nearby properties. The Guidance states: Vapor intrusion site investigations should include an evaluation of utility corridors. Vapors and free product liquids in utility corridors can potentially migrate long distances, longer than predicted with conventional fate and transport models......Vapors can migrate in any direction along the corridor, while free product liquids will migrate in a downslope direction along the bottom of the corridor trench......The locations of all utilities within, or adjacent to, subsurface contamination should be identified, regardless of whether the contamination is currently limited to property boundaries. If records show utility corridors might provide a conduit for contaminant migration, collection of active or passive soil gas samples is necessary to determine whether the backfill material of the conduit or adjacent soil is contaminated. The investigation of the corridor should continue until the extent of the contamination is delineated. If utility corridors are contaminated, monitoring the corridors with permanently installed vapor wells may be necessary.” (Source: Guidance for the Evaluation and Mitigation of Subsurface Vapor Intrusion to Indoor Air – Vapor Intrusion Guidance, DTSC, Cal/EPA, October 2011).
It’s important to note why the manner in which utility corridors are designed often make them “preferential pathways” for the movement and migration of liquids and vapors through the subsurface. During their construction, utility pipelines are placed in a trench and backfilled with gravel, sand or other permeable sediments. This design allows for freer movement of the pipeline to dissipate pressures created by normal seismic activity. At the same time, this may also provide less resistance and a freer, or “preferential,” pathway for the movement of liquid and vapor phase contaminants. Utility corridors can be thought of as “super freeways” for faster movement of toxic contaminants in the subsurface. DTSC’s Human and Ecological Risk Office (HERO) previously reviewed a Site Assessment Report on the Welch’s site and recommended “......including available information on underground utilities at and near the site as these utility corridors may act as soil vapor migration pathways.” HERO also specifically recommended: “......collecting soil gas data within each area of concern to verify the previous soil gas sampling results, and for use in health risk assessment.” (Source: Communication Chawn Y Jeng, Ph.D., Toxicologist, Human and Ecological Risk Office to Alberto Valmidiano, Project Manager, DTSC-Glendale, 11-01-2007).
Two elementary schools and one middle school are located within 1,000 feet of the site; Loreto Elementary and Florence Nightingale Middle School are situated to the Northwest, and Hillside Elementary School is immediately across the street. The threat of toxic vapors migrating in the subsurface along utility corridors, or being released during construction to the air, must be mitigated to ensure the safety of school occupants, local business and area residents. We are conferring with officials of LAUSD’s Office of Environmental Health and Safety who are reviewing our concerns and committed to ensuring conditions on the former Welch’s site and adjacent properties do not endanger school occupants during or after development of the subject property.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns that these toxins pose a range of risks to human health and safety, especially to residents and workers who inhale even small quantities of these vapors. TCE and PCE, for example, can cause internal organ failure, birth defects and cancer. The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) reports there is strong evidence that TCE can cause kidney cancer in people and some evidence for TCE-induced liver cancer and malignant lymphoma. The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) considers TCE to be a known human carcinogen, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified TCE as carcinogenic to humans. The EPA has characterized trichloroethylene as carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. ATSDR reports that studies in humans suggest that exposure to PCE might lead to a higher risk of bladder cancer, multiple myeloma, or non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. EPA considers PCE likely to be carcinogenic to humans by all routes of exposure. Testing for the presence and concentration of these compounds has not been conducted on the subject property.
We understand this project is proceeding under a Mitigated Negative Declaration (MND) that was prepared in 2016 for an entirely different project than the project being considered now. That original project expired on August 22, 2019, three years after approval by the City. The current project, therefore, is operating under an outdated and irrelevant Initial Study and MND. An addendum to the MND was prepared in 2020 that also neglected to address the most relevant historically recognized condition likely to affect this property, namely the toxic plume of underground contamination emanating from the adjacent Welch’s site along the property boundary, and flowing directly through the subject property. A new EIR is needed to fully examine this condition, assess levels of contamination, and propose measures to mitigate the dangers of any release of toxins into the community.
We are also aware that the environmental review for the subject property was based on a Phase 1 Environmental Assessment dated July 19, 2019 which misrepresented the direction of the groundwater flow at this location. That Phase 1 characterized groundwater as flowing North (away from the subject property), when in fact it flows Southwest (directly through the subject property). This mischaracterization was used to advise against a Phase 2 Investigation which would have necessarily included soil and soil vapor testing for chemicals on and beneath the subject property.
It appears that City Planning has continued to push this project through despite the absence of testing and assessment, and against the opposition of community residents who fear for their safety. Lincoln Heights suffers some of the highest levels of pollution in Los Angeles, and CalEnviroScreen has scored the community among the highest 10 percent of pollution-burdened areas in the State. It also has one of the lowest median incomes. It is a community composed mostly of Latino and Asian residents, with a high proportion of non-English speakers. The neighborhood lacks the resources to defend itself against powerful interests, even in the face of strong and compelling evidence. This has all happened during the height of the pandemic in one of the neighborhoods struck most severely by Covid-19.
LA City leadership and our state government have long-championed the principle of environmental justice, but we believe the State and the City’s actions to address concern from residents on the proposed development and the contamination at the site have not served the best interests of this underserved community. This would never happen anywhere in LA’s affluent communities. We urge you to put the proposed development on hold until testing and assessment is completed on the subject property, and the results indicate that conditions within the development footprint do not pose a substantial threat to the health of community residents and the school across the street.
For more information regarding concerns about this issue contact Michael Hayden, Lincoln Heights Community Coalition at 919-543-5162, Angelo Bellomo at 805-433-5177 or Jane Williams, California Communities Against Toxics at 661-256-2101.
Michael Henry Hayden
Lincoln Heights Coalition
Los Angeles, CA
Angelo J. Bellomo
Former Deputy Director, LA County Department of Health
Los Angeles, CA
California Communities Against Toxics
California Safe Schools
Los Angeles, CA
Jesse N. Marquez
Coalition For A Safe Environment
Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC)
Father John Moretta
Boyle Heights, CA
Executive Director DelAmo Action Committee
Paramount Community Coalition Against Toxics
Mothers of East Los Angeles
Boyle Heights, CA
Joe R. Gatlin
San Pedro-Wilmington Branch # 1069
San Pedro, CA
St. Philomena Social Justice Ministry
Mary Zakrasek, Ph.D.
Children’s Health Advocate
Sherman Oaks, CA
California Kids IAQ
Mary Cordaro, Inc
Los Angeles, CA
Rhonda Jessum, Ph.D.
Founder and Director Our Right To Know
Magali Sanchez-Hall, MPH
Executive Director EMERGE
Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez Coordinator
Clean Air Coalition
North Whittier and Avocado Heights
Anabell Romero Chavez
Wilmington Improvement Network
Felipe Aguirre Director
Comite Pro Uno
Kevin Wheeler Treasurer
Stop Toxic Housing