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.

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.

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."

With two court decisions in their favor, the government and PG&E have no legal obligations to meet any of the residents' demands. Spokeswoman Mary Rodrigues says, "PG&E has received these requests. We have considered them, but we haven't made any decisions."

As PG&E ponders, the utility reiterates a refrain: Midway Village was and is safe. "The information we have given out to the residents over and over again, they either don't believe it, or think something is left out," Rodrigues says. "A lot of their concerns, if they had more information, they would be alleviated. There would be no more concerns."

The San Mateo Housing Authority echoes PG&E's view. "They don't trust the people who are telling them what the evidence says," says Peter Finck, an attorney for the Housing Authority.

The state Department of Toxic Substance Control agrees. "There is misinformation and misunderstanding of data," agency project manager Wanger says.

Midway Village is, indeed, full of suspicion. But the suspicions are reasonable, given the Midway experience, and the eight years of false denials that were fed to residents. Some residents even wonder whether the government, their attorneys, and the utility are partners in a conspiracy against them.

At least a dozen Midway residents say they will continue to pursue their case. "We are just going to fight until there is no air left in us," says Lula Bishop, a Midway resident of nearly two decades and a plaintiff of the lawsuit pending appeal.

LaDonna Williams is prepared to sacrifice the hair salon she owns and operates, if that is necessary to obtain what she sees as justice for Midway. "I am not going to stop until I get justice. I am not. I am determined I am going to get justice," Williams, a devout Jehovah's Witness, says.

"I firmly believe I have the support of God, and God does have the power. That's where our power is going to come from. That's what these agencies are not counting on. We have righteousness on our side."

As things now stand, it may take divine intervention for the concerns of Midway Village residents to be assuaged.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.