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Living on Toxic Ground
After 10-year battle, Daly City residents finally being heard
Angelica Pence, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, January 20, 2000
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle
Basilia de Guzman reached inside her duffel bag, riffling through dozens of plastic bottles filled with a lifetime of prescription pills.
Synthroid. Beconase. Codine. Methocarbamol. Nitroglycerine. Guaifen-Phenylprop. Tylenol. Tagamet. Promethazine.
``Oh, I take many, many drugs,'' the 68-year-old allows with a sigh. ``I can't remember when I didn't take medicine for something or another. I'm sick from head to toe.''
Guzman and dozens like her living at the Midway Village housing project in Daly City have long suffered from health problems they believe are caused by carcinogens in contaminated soil beneath their homes. Their complaints have been dismissed by the courts and largely ignored by county, state and federal officials.
But after The Chronicle reported yesterday about defective genes showing up in most of the 58 residents tested, authorities began showing a new interest in Midway Village.
Officials from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, which analyzed the DNA at the residents' request, said yesterday they will revisit the cleanup issue. And Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco, said his office will ask the agency for more studies at the site.
``Most of us are taking so many medications we've lost count,'' says Lula Bishop, 54, a Midway Village tenant for 23 years. ``We have stomach problems, we're depressed, we're nervous and we're in constant pain. Me, I spent a lot of time in bed.''
In a cluttered corner of the activist's tiny living room, notebooks, manila folders and computer files hold years of scribbled notes, letters and phone messages documenting the decade-old fight.
Ten years ago, state and San Mateo County officials told residents that the ground under Midway Village was contaminated with PNAs, or polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, which have been linked to cancer and other illnesses. They also learned the complex is located next door to a state Superfund site owned by Pacific Gas and Electric Co.
Since then, many of Midway Village's 150 families have been fighting to clean up their neighborhood. A small, hardy contingent holds regular meetings, stages protests and badgers government officials in hopes of leaving behind the neighborhood they say is making them sick.
In court documents and in interviews with The Chronicle dating back to the early '90s, residents have complained of recurring, mysterious symptoms, including skin rashes, bloodshot eyes, vomiting and blood in their urine. A few say they wake up gasping for air at night.
Others cite memory loss, troubled pregnancies -- including stillbirths -- and fear that their exposure to poisons in the soil has left them prone to cancer. In one building alone, residents claim, there have been 16 miscarriages.
The residents are demanding money for medical bills, they say, that have been piling up as a result of the toxic soil. Most important, they want those responsible to pay for what they have done wrong.
Greenaction, a San Francisco health and environmental justice group, took up the residents' plight about two years ago.
But some are too tired or too sick to continue the battle.
Patricia Redwood, a mother of three who moved to Midway Village about 11 years ago, was diagnosed with cervical and uterine cancer in the mid-1990s. Shortly after, she had a miscarriage. Redwood also suffers from ``constant rashes all over her body,'' said Ken Barnes, Redwood's physician in San Francisco.
``I've never seen anything like this,'' he says. ``There's something making Patricia very sick. And I don't know what that is.''
The contamination dates back to the turn of the 20th century. PG&E operated a gas plant in the area, which shut down in 1913. PNA-laden waste from the old gas plant was used to fill the ground beneath nearby military housing during World War II. San Mateo County rebuilt the housing project in 1976 with federal money. No soil tests were done at the time.
The utility uncovered contaminated soil at the site of the old gas plant in 1980. Residents first came to believe their illnesses were linked to toxic chemicals in 1990, when county and state officials told them of the contamination.
``But it goes back even further than that,'' said Ladona Williams, a former resident. ``We believed for a long time that there was evidence that they knew way before they told us in 1990.''
Still, such evidence has yet to surface -- one of several missing pieces in the puzzle that residents must solve before they can prevail in court, experts say.
In 1993, more than 250 current and former residents of Midway Village joined in class-action lawsuits in federal court claiming negligence on the part of the federal government and the U.S. Navy. The suits were eventually dismissed, as was a later case against the county Housing Authority and PG&E. Some of the plaintiffs accepted $2,000 to $4,500 as part of the 1997 settlement offer.
Others, however, are pursuing more money and an admission of guilt by the utility company. Indeed, the largely elderly tenants say that despite the defeats, they are not ruling out any future lawsuits.
David Roe, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund in San Francisco, said the tenants' losing streak is typical of cases claiming environmentally caused illnesses.
``It is a rare case when you can prove what actually caused a sickness,'' Roe said. ``If you're talking about cancer and birth defects, as is the case in Midway Village, those have a lot of causes. Even if you're 100 percent sure that chemical X causes disease Y, that may or not be the case in a specific person.''
Over the years, a handful of sick tenants were relocated after their doctors informed county authorities that remaining in Midway Village would pose a danger to their patients' already frail health.
``They were the lucky ones,'' says Guzman, who has lived in her two-bedroom apartment since the complex was owned by the U.S. Navy.
But for many tenants, packing up and moving away is simply not an option.
``We can't afford it,'' said 19- year resident Irma Anderson. ``It's hard enough to find a place to live in the Bay Area. We're on a fixed income. That makes it almost impossible for us.''
A four-person household, for instance, can earn no more than $36,000 annually to live in Midway Village, said Maurice Dawson, executive director of the county Housing Authority.
Midway Village is tucked away in Daly City's Bayshore neighborhood. Eucalyptus trees shade neatly kept lawns. A day care center, two elementary schools and a park wrap around the quiet complex where Latinos, blacks and whites have lived side-by-side for years.
On a recent evening, Bishop sat in her living room alongside a group of neighbors, venting her frustrations. Dealing with government agencies and PG&E for 10 years, she says, has taken its toll.
``We have very little choice,'' she said. ``I might not enjoy the benefits, but our kids, our grandkids will.''
She points to her bloodshot right eye. The condition, she says, began in 1990 after crews first dug up the tainted dirt around her apartment for the first of several drainage projects. Since then, she has suffered from recurring rashes and back problems and has difficulty breathing.
Rudy Garcia says his family developed similar health problems soon after moving into the complex five years ago.
``My boys get sick all the time,'' said the 39-year-old roofer. ``I'm constantly wiping their bloody noses. My wife developed kidney stones. I have rashes all over my legs. I can't prove it, but I know it's this place that's making us sick.''
STATE LEGISLATOR REQUESTS CAL-EPA INVESTIGATION
A lawmaker is calling for further studies to be conducted on the Midway Village housing project after a federal report revealed genetic defects among residents.
``We've sent a letter off to . . . Cal-EPA asking them to immediately investigate the situation and report back the findings,'' said Assemblyman Kevin Shelley, D-San Francisco.
The federal DNA analysis was undertaken by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the request of residents, who have a long list of ailments.
For years, they have asked to be permanently moved from the area. They also want compensation for any medical expenses incurred as a result of the toxic soil on the Daly City site.
Yesterday, Shelley requested that the Environmental Safety and Toxics Committee convene to take testimony from toxics experts and Midway Village residents. In the meantime, his staff will investigate ways for residents to be moved.
Dan Strausbaugh, regional representative for the state agency, said toxicologists with the agency's Atlanta office are revisiting the case to see what, if anything, can be done at this point.
Over the years, crews hired by Daly City and PG&E have dug up trenches as part of construction and drainage projects, including the latest at nearby Bayshore Park. A mothball-like stench mixed with periodic diesel fumes has lingered over the complex for weeks as workers overturn contaminated soil in nearby Bayshore Park as part of a drainage project. The most immediate concern for residents are heavy winter rains washing the park soil onto residential property.
©2000 San Francisco Chronicle
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