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What Lies Beneath 

Brain and stomach cancer. Asthma and bronchitis. Miscarriages and stillbirths. All are health problems suffered by residents of Midway Village. Why won’t authorities close it down?

Wednesday, Dec 20 2006
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A Saturday afternoon in Midway Village presents a version of suburbia as docile as anywhere in the Bay Area. A young girl on a pink bicycle, her dark hair and silver handlebar tassels flying parallel to the ground, rides past a playground where a gaggle of kids romp. Two boys bounce on a spring seesaw while two others, legs pumping, strain for big air on swings. A short distance away, a middle-aged couple strolls amid shadows cast by eucalyptus trees, leaves swaying in the light breeze.

The calmness belies the stereotype of life inside a public housing project, a stereotype that assumes domestic quarrels, sidewalk drug deals, and sporadic gunplay. The 150 town homes of Midway Village, if given a fresh coat of paint to revive their faded blue and salmon-pink exteriors, could pass for just another middle-class enclave in San Mateo County. A learning center and daycare facility sit on the tidy grounds, huddled against the foot of San Bruno Mountain in Daly City, a few blocks from the Cow Palace. Even the massive PG&E complex that borders the housing project almost recedes from notice, partially hidden by the mesh fence and foliage that divide the properties.

In fact, aside from posted signs that warn "State And Local Regulations Are Enforced," Midway, home to some 500 people, subtly cloaks its public-housing identity. Visitors will find still less that hints at its turbulent past, or the dispute that has reignited over the toxic waste buried beneath its well-groomed lawns.

In 1980, PG&E discovered hazardous chemicals in the soil on its property and notified state regulators, who ordered the utility to sponge up its mess. But not until November 1989, after the company's tests detected carcinogens buried near Midway's buildings and an adjacent park, would the state conduct its own soil analysis at the housing project. Another 10 months passed before public officials told residents that some of their homes rested on toxin-laden dirt taken from PG&E's property decades earlier.

Tenants long had theorized about the source of varied illnesses that afflicted them after they moved to Midway. Court records show that more than one-third of those living in the complex in the early '90s reported health problems: lung and stomach cancer, asthma and bronchitis, anemia and blurred vision. Women suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, infertility, and other reproductive maladies, while children endured skin rashes and frequent nosebleeds. Residents regarded the news of toxic waste in the ground as the answer to their medical riddle.

State officials disagreed, denying that the chemical residues posed a risk and rejecting the need for a health survey, even as they prepared to clean up the site. Tenants reacted by suing multiple public agencies and PG&E in state and federal court. A state judge tossed their case, ruling that they lacked the proof to blame their ailments on soil impurities. The federal suit met a similar fate when a judge declared the U.S. government immune from liability.

The state started its first extensive cleanup of Midway in 1993, hauling away truckloads of tainted dirt and expanding parking lots, sidewalks, and patios to "cap" contaminated areas. The action failed to mollify residents, who claimed their health woes persisted. By 2000, with tenants picketing outside PG&E's site and its San Francisco offices, state lawmakers prodded the county to offer subsidy vouchers that would enable residents to rent private housing.

Tenants balked. They argued that, for their years of paying rent and living unwittingly on top of harmful toxins, the government should give them private homes and cover their medical bills. "We're sick. We're dying," one told the Chronicle. "Just giving us Section 8 vouchers at this point doesn't cut it."

A year later, despite repeated assurances that residents were safe, state regulators initiated another major cleanup. Hazmat workers in blue jumpsuits scoured tons of soil from the portion of Midway that abuts PG&E's property, and from neighboring Bayshore Park. Yet the dirt beneath homes went untouched.

Public and media interest in Midway ebbed after the second cleanup, as did the collective will of residents. Most tired of the struggle or moved away, leaving the fight to a small band of advocates. Sixteen years after the upheaval began, however, fresh doubts have surfaced about the state's work as toxic-waste janitor and its efforts to protect residents. This summer, a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the $8 million remediation of Midway and Bayshore Park. As part of the project review, the state EPA paid an outside consultant, Wilma Subra, to assess the cleanup. Among myriad criticisms, she cited the state's failure to remove dirt beneath Midway's homes, patios, sidewalks, streets, and parking lots.

As a result, Subra wrote, "There is the potential that large quantities of contamination remain on site at [or] very near the surface."

Similarly, both the state's study and a second review issued in October by an EPA advisory committee pinpoint apparent flaws in the cleanup. The reports raise concerns about whether regulators fully probed the range of toxins present, including naphthalene and other petroleum-based chemicals linked to lung, stomach, and skin cancer in lab animals.

The committee also raps the state's refusal to conduct a medical survey of current and former residents, who continue to struggle with cancer, respiratory and digestive illnesses, and weakened immune systems. Meanwhile, the panel suggests, during the span of the Midway project, officials authorized a more rigorous cleanup of a polluted site near Los Angeles — in an affluent subdivision of private homes.

To the people of Midway, most of them low-income minorities, affluent may as well mean white, and the disparity in cleanups betrays racism. "Just because we're people of color," says Maria Downing, a resident since 1976, "the government thinks it can treat us like we don't matter." Such charged emotions, and the scientific debate over what lies beneath Midway, provoke questions about whether the county's largest public housing complex should stay open.


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Martin Kuz

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