Midway to Nowhere

The residents of Daly City's Midway Village wonder if their environmental concerns will ever be addressed

Everything was nice and calm when LaDonna Williams put her 4-year-old baby girl, Tanesha, to bed. A couple of hours later, she went to make a routine check on the girl. Bending down to kiss the baby's head, she noticed something on Tanesha's face. It felt wet. When she turned the lights on, her baby was lying in a pool of blood, spread on white sheets.

Williams ran to get towels. She started frantically dabbing her baby's face while trying to wake her up. "Tanesha! Tanesha! Please don't die," Williams screamed.

Tanesha didn't die. The pool of blood turned out to be the first of many unexplained, severe nosebleeds that Tanesha, her siblings, and many of their neighbors' children would suffer. Since that first nosebleed, Tanesha and her sisters -- Diamond, 8, and Paris, 4 -- have had many more. They've also had rashes, digestive problems, and respiratory conditions. It wasn't until the family moved away from Midway Village in 1989 -- after living there for 10 years -- that the children's nosebleeds went away. The rashes and digestive problems persist to this day.

In 1996, Rosemarie Bowler, an expert on chemical exposure from San Francisco State University, conducted a health survey of Midway residents. Comparing them to a community in Oakland with similar demographics, Bowler found that Midway residents suffered a variety of physical illnesses and psychological conditions at significantly higher rates than the Oakland community. The health problems afflicting Midway residents included persistent skin rashes, acute bronchitis, psychiatric disorders, anemia, asthma, allergies, nosebleeds, frequent headaches, obsessive-compulsiveness, and phobic anxiety.

Bowler, other environmental experts, many Midway residents, and lawyers representing those residents all believe the elevated levels of disease in the housing project are the result of toxic contaminants in Midway's soil. The contaminated soil was taken from a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric Co. site and used as fill at Midway just after World War II. Over the past 50 years, a variety of construction projects at and near the housing project spread contamination further in Midway. But Midway residents were not told they were living on or near a welter of probable carcinogens until eight years ago.

Since then, the residents have filed two lawsuits and made numerous appeals to federal, state, and local environmental agencies and authorities. They have asked President Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, and even the Rev. Jesse Jackson for help. They have sought assistance through what seems to be every available avenue -- to almost no avail. Both Midway lawsuits were dismissed before trial, and the residents have gotten either no response or unsatisfactory responses from the government agencies and the private utility that are, at least in a moral sense, responsible for contaminating the housing project.

The residents of Midway Village have a problem, but it clearly is not a problem the nation's legal or regulatory systems are designed to deal with.

Midway Village is a low-income housing project made up of clusters of well-kept one- and two-story homes stretched over 30 acres of land in Daly City, near the Cow Palace. Approximately 150 families live there. The neighborhood is quiet; the streets are clean and the walls are free of graffiti.

There is a child care center at Midway Village, and within a one-mile radius of the project sit five elementary and middle schools. Right next to the housing project is the 10-acre Bayshore Park. At first glance, Midway Village seems a model public housing project -- if, at first glance, one even suspects it of being a housing project.

But at Midway Village, seeming is not being.
The Midway site was first used for housing in 1944, when the federal government obtained approximately 50 acres of land in Daly City and built emergency wartime housing for Navy midshipmen there (hence the name Midway Village). Court documents indicate that about 40 acres of the land -- where part of Midway Village and Bayshore Park now sit -- were acquired from private landowners. The rest -- where a portion of PG&E's Martin Service Center lies -- was leased from PG&E.

Even then, the government knew the site was hardly pristine. Engineers who surveyed the site noted that lampblack and other hydrocarbon contaminants were on PG&E's property, the former location of a plant that turned oil into gas used for lighting, heating, and cooking. (Natural gas was not then widely available.)

Part of the Midway site was a marsh. To make the land suitable for construction, engineers hired by the federal government decided to fill the wetlands, which match approximately the current northern boundary of Midway and Bayshore Park. Subsequently, 20,600 cubic yards of old concrete foundations and soil from PG&E's former gas plant were used to fill in the marshy areas. Despite the fill, the swamp area -- where part of Bayshore Park is now -- remained unsuitable for construction and was set aside as a playground.

Following the Korean War, the Navy no longer needed Midway. In 1955, the federal government terminated the lease on the PG&E property and returned the land to the company. The rest of the land was deeded to the San Mateo County Housing Authority and the Bayshore Elementary School District. The Housing Authority started operating the former naval barracks at Midway as low-income housing.

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