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?

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.

State regulators contend the concrete slabs under Midway's 35 buildings, along with its patios, sidewalks, and parking lots, seal off gases that might be released by toxins in the earth. So this summer, when Irma Anderson noticed weeds growing from under a baseboard in one corner of her townhouse, she asked a friend to snap a few photos. She wanted proof of what she views as an obvious health risk.

"If weeds are coming up through the foundation," she says, "you've got to wonder what's coming up that we're breathing." Her two-bedroom unit lies on the portion of Midway deemed untainted by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. She considers that designation, as much as the concrete beneath her feet, full of cracks.

"DTSC won't say it, but I'll say it: The whole site is contaminated. The whole site is a death trap."

Anderson moved into Midway Village with her three children in 1980, four years after the San Mateo County Housing Authority opened the complex. A sprawling horse ranch, since supplanted by a housing tract, ran along its southern edge. To the north, then as now, loomed the PG&E compound, consisting of an equipment service station, storage yard, and power substation.

Kids explored both expanses in those years; PG&E waited until 1984 to install a fence along its border with the housing project. Their wanderings on and off Midway's property yielded animal oddities — frogs missing eyes or legs, worms as thick as sausage links — that they showed to their parents. The mutant wildlife worried Anderson less than the strange ailments that beset her children within months of settling into their new home. They coped with recurring skin rashes, asthma attacks, vomiting spells, and bloody noses, perplexing their mother and the doctors who tried to diagnose possible causes.

Anderson stopped guessing in September 1990, when state and county officials disclosed the presence of carcinogens in Midway's soil and the toxic-waste cleanup of PG&E's land. The public meeting marked the first time residents learned of the housing project's entangled history with its industrial neighbor.

From 1905 to 1916, the San Mateo Power Company and, later, PG&E ran a gas manufacturing plant on the land next to where Midway now stands. The factory, in the years before the broad distribution of natural gas, converted oil into gas to power electric generators and supply customers with fuel for lighting and heating. Toxic byproducts created by the process, among them tars and lampblack, a sooty carbon residue, seeped into the ground.

Fast forward to 1944. The Navy, scrambling to build military housing during World War II, leased the site of the dismantled gas plant from PG&E, and acquired an adjacent parcel from private landowners that contained swampland. Contractors filled the marshy terrain with soil removed from PG&E's property and built barracks that midshipmen occupied until 1955, two years after the Korean War ended.

At that point, the Navy returned PG&E's land to the utility, and deeded half the remaining tract to the county housing authority. (The Bayshore School District received the other half and operates two schools near Midway and the on-site daycare center.) The agency used the barracks for low-income housing for two decades before officials decided to replace the aging buildings with town homes. The project required grading of the land, further spreading contaminated dirt taken from PG&E's property.

No soil tests were performed while contractors built the town homes in 1976, a time when the nation's eco-awareness still slept. Yet as far back as 1944, when the Navy constructed its barracks, federal housing officials knew of the dirt's impurities, if less so its potential toxicity.

That year, a building contractor submitted a report to the progenitor of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the agency that funds local housing authorities. His survey of the property revealed "much decomposed lamp black [sic] and oil refuse mixed with the mud." (HUD officials did not respond to SF Weekly's requests for comment.)

Attorneys for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, acting as counsel for the Navy, cited those details in a 1991 memo to the California EPA as the state agency sought to assign liability for Midway's contamination. The corps argued that the contractor's survey proved toxic waste "from PG&E ... was present before the United States took possession of the parcel in question."

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