Midway to Nowhere

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

By 1976, the original Midway had become dilapidated. The Housing Authority replaced the World War II-vintage housing with new units. In the process of constructing Midway Village, landfilling and grading activities further spread contaminated soil. As Mid-way Village was being built, Daly City was developing Bayshore Park on about 10 acres of land the Housing Authority had deeded to it. The grading and construction undertaken by Daly City on the site also uncovered contaminated soil, according to a government report.

But no testing was done on the soil in the area until 1980, when PG&E started construction work on its Martin Service Center, which sits on land the company had been leasing to the Housing Authority. In the process of grading and construction there, PG&E uncovered residues from the old oil gasification plant; the residue, testing showed, contained chemical compounds called polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons, or PNAs.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classifies five PNA compounds found at Midway as highly probable carcinogens, and two others as suspected carcinogens. Other than cancer, PNAs can cause a host of ailments, including bronchitis, dermatitis, tumors, abdominal pain, leukemia, and eye irritation, depending on the dosage and duration of exposure.

After removing and disposing of 132 cubic yards of the contaminated soil at a hazardous waste disposal site, PG&E paved its Daly City yard with concrete slabs. As part of the project, PG&E also constructed an 800-foot-long earthen berm, containing contaminated soil, along the boundary of its property and Midway Village.

Two years later, black, viscous material began oozing through the joints of the concrete slabs. PG&E sampled the soil and ground water beneath the southern end of the Daly City yard, which is near the northern boundary of Midway Village. Results indicated that both were contaminated.

But no tests were done outside of PG&E's property.
According to PG&E, further testing was not done for two reasons: First, the utility had concluded that PNAs do not migrate underground. "It is a very well-behaved chemical. It tends to stick to soil, unless you physically move it," says Robert Doss, PG&E's director for site remediation and environmental services. Also, PG&E says, it did not know the federal government had moved contaminated soil to Midway during the construction of Navy housing. (Alfred Wanger, a project manager for the state's Department of Toxic Substance Control, agrees it was reasonable for PG&E to assume in 1980 that PNAs were only on their property.)

In 1984, four years after the contamination was discovered, PG&E submitted a report to the state Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health Services, and the Regional Water Quality Control Board. The utility's service center was subsequently named a state Superfund site, and, in 1985, the Water Quality Board asked PG&E to further research the contamination.

From the mid-1980s until early 1990, PG&E did, indeed, investigate the contamination. But it wasn't until late 1989 that the investigation expanded to include Midway Village and Bayshore Park -- even though PG&E and the Department of Health Services had known since 1980 that there was contamination close to the boundary area of Midway.

Upon discovery of contamination outside of PG&E property in late '89 and early '90, the company was "surprised," Doss says. And the surprise was a big one. According to an October 1990 memo by Calvin C. Willhite of the Department of Health Services, the level of PNAs found in the areas adjoining PG&E's service center was some 150 times what one might expect to find on uncontaminated land.

In that same memo, Willhite also harshly criticized PG&E's environmental assessment: "Substantial deficiencies can be identified throughout the text. In this reviewer's professional opinion, the document tends to understate the public health risk associated with residential exposures at the site."

In December 1988, PG&E briefed local elected representatives on the status of environmental studies at the Martin Ser-vice Center.

In 1989, PG&E interviewed state, county, and municipal officials, as well as community leaders, to gauge community interest in and concern about possible contamination.

In June 1990, PG&E met with representatives of the San Mateo Housing Authority, the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors, and the San Mateo County Department of Environmental Health to inform them that samples taken in Midway Village showed contamination.

No Midway residents were briefed in 1988 or 1990. None were interviewed, either.

In fact, no Midway residents knew of the contamination when the Housing Authority began digging trenches for new drainage pipes meant to alleviate seasonal flooding problems at the housing project. The Housing Authority started the project without notifying the state, government records show, even though Housing Authority officials knew that soil at Midway was contaminated -- and that moving the soil around would spread the toxins.

In August 1990, the state ordered the Housing Authority to stop work on the drainage project. But open trenches and piles of dirt were left unattended. According to Irma Anderson, a 15-year resident of Midway, children played in the dirt as the Department of Health Services performed studies.

Finally, in September 1990, PG&E and the Department of Health Services held a public meeting and told Midway residents for the first time that parts of their housing project and the adjoining Bayshore Park and PG&E property were contaminated. Yet it wasn't until October -- three months after the excavation started -- that the Housing Authority filled and covered all the open trenches at Midway.

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