Midway to Nowhere

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

Over the next several years, the government began to take actions that were at least aimed at mitigating the toxic contamination of Midway Village. In December 1991, the state EPA named the Navy, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and PG&E as parties responsible for the contamination, and ordered them to prepare cleanup plans.

From 1991 through 1994, contaminated soil was removed from the back yards of several Midway homes near PG&E property. The yards were then capped with concrete patios. Some public access areas were also paved. Now, according to the state EPA, Midway has a certified status, which means the agency considers environmental remediation to have been satisfactorily completed.

As Midway was being remediated, PG&E's Martin Service Center was also being cleaned up. PG&E capped the berm on the boundary area and paved over exposed dirt immediately west of the center. By 1995, the state had also certified PG&E's Daly City yard.

In the opinion of the San Mateo Housing Authority, the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, and PG&E, Midway Village is now "safe."

In July 1991, several Midway residents filed a lawsuit against the San Mateo Housing Authority, Daly City, and PG&E, among others. Eventually, a few hundred residents joined the case. The lawsuit faults PG&E for depositing contaminated dirt on Midway, the Housing Authority for building and operating the housing project on the contamination, Daly City for building and operating Bayshore Park on contaminated land, and all the defendants for failing to warn residents of dangerous conditions.

The case was dismissed before trial in 1997. San Mateo Superior Court Judge Joseph Bergeron threw the case out of court, ruling that Midway residents could not show "that any individual plaintiff's illness, injury, symptoms, or damages are, more likely than not, due to exposure to PNAs or other chemicals at Midway Village."

Although the Bowler health study commissioned by the law firm representing Midway residents shows preliminary evidence of unusually high rates of illnesses at Midway, the judge found that it fails to adequately establish a causal link between chemical exposure and the illnesses at Midway.

Court documents show that PG&E and other defendants took full advantage of the scientific difficulties involved in linking chemical exposure to illnesses. They insisted on a clear and definite connection, going so far as to demand dates as to when Midway plaintiffs first became sick as a result of being harmed by chemical exposure.

Bill Nelson, regional representative at the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for the U.S. EPA in San Francisco, says that making such a definitive scientific link between specific toxins and specific illnesses is usually impossible. "There is no way to make a cause-and-effect relationship. There is nobody who can do it," he says.

To establish that connection, according to Nelson, scientists would need to know exactly for how long and at what level people were exposed. Such data is not available in most environmental contamination cases -- including those filed on behalf of the Midway residents.

Although the lawsuit is on appeal, Midway plaintiffs, including LaDonna Williams, are none too optimistic about the outcome. "We are not going to get justice in the courts. We've already been through that route," Williams says.

As the lawsuit against San Mateo County and PG&E was making its way to dismissal and appeal, a related lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Midway residents naming the U.S. Navy and HUD as defendants. This lawsuit also foundered. Because of immunity the U.S. government enjoys under the Federal Torts Claim Act, the case was dismissed in April 1994. An appeal of that case failed.

So far, civil court action has done nothing to help Midway Village residents. And so far, environmental agencies have done very little to worry those responsible for spreading contamination on and near the housing project.

Even though PG&E, the federal government, and the Housing Authority faced potential penalties of $25,000 per day for months -- and perhaps years -- of delay in cleaning up contamination at Midway Village, the settlements they paid wound up being quite small.

The state's Toxic Substance Control agency eventually accepted settlements in which the federal government agreed to pay the state about $500,000 toward cleanup costs for Midway Village. PG&E and the Housing Authority also contributed toward the nearly $2 million spent for environmental remediation at Midway. In negotiations among themselves, the three parties decided that the Navy and the Housing Authority would pay 75 percent of the cleanup cost, PG&E 10 percent, and the EPA the rest.

Since 1996, LaDonna Williams and half a dozen other Midway residents have written letter after letter to environmental agencies and elected representatives, including U.S. Rep. Maxine Walters, San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, Daly City Mayor Mike Guingona, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Countless meetings have been held. But Midway residents are nowhere near attaining their goals: permanent relocation, medical compensation, lifetime medical monitoring, and permanent shutdown of Midway.

Bill Nelson of the Agency of Toxic Substances and Disease Registry has flatly told residents that achieving any of those goals is beyond the scope of his agency's power. "We can refer individuals for treatment," he says, "however, we cannot pay for [it]. The individuals or their insurance company have to pay for that."

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