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?

PG&E officials insist they knew nothing of Midway's tainted soil before the state ordered them to test the property in late 1989. The soil sampling detected an excess of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, chemicals that form during the incomplete burning of coal, oil, gas, and other organic substances, according to a federal toxics registry. The fuel byproducts, typically found in low levels in cigarette smoke, barbecued meat, and asphalt, can enter the body through skin contact, breathing, and ingestion. Soil, surface water runoff, and airborne dust can harbor the toxins.

Early soil analysis at Midway showed the presence of PAHs in some places at a whopping 150 times the normal level common to urban areas. Lab animals exposed to high dosages of the chemicals exhibit a greater incidence of lung, stomach, and skin cancer, birth defects, immune deficiencies, and respiratory ailments.

The discovery of chemical residues on Midway's land surprised PG&E, company officials assert, despite the toxic waste on its property near the housing project. "We were asking, 'How did the [contaminated] soil migrate over here?'" says Bob Doss, the utility's chief environmental engineer. "It was a mystery to us."

“Whatever’s in the ground is causing our problems,” Downing says. says“There’s no doubt.”for style and position.
James Sanders
“Whatever’s in the ground is causing our problems,” Downing says. says“There’s no doubt.”for style and position.
The state removed 12,000 cubic yards of tainted soil from Bayshore Park.
James Sanders
The state removed 12,000 cubic yards of tainted soil from Bayshore Park.

Doss ascribes the lag between the initial testing on PG&E's land in 1980 and the first analysis of Midway's soil nine years later to two factors — one related to science, the other to record keeping. PAHs tend to stick to dirt unless physically moved; in that sense, Doss says, utility officials believed the chemicals were confined to company land. He also claims they lacked any awareness prior to 1990 that federal contractors trucked toxic soil from PG&E's land to Midway while building the Navy barracks. "The [U.S.] government was in charge of the property at that time," he says.

But a third reason, one that Doss neglects to mention, perhaps best accounts for PG&E's inaction: State regulators didn't ask the utility to test Midway's soil before 1989.

"If you're PG&E, you're probably not going to volunteer to do that," says LaDonna Williams, a past Midway resident. As much as anyone, Williams, head of People for Children's Health and Environmental Justice, a nonprofit advocacy group, sustains the cause of current and former residents. She has chased down thousands of documents and lobbied hundreds of public officials, along the way receiving a dual education in ecology and bureaucratic inertia.

"DTSC knew what was going on at PG&E," she says, "and they just sat there."

State toxics experts maintain they and PG&E officials applied sound science in assuming that PAHs, with their stay-at-home properties, would turn up only in the company's soil. Likewise, regulators defend their decision to leave the dirt beneath Midway's homes and its existing patios, sidewalks, and parking lots. The concrete and asphalt surfaces prevent people from disturbing the soil and block potentially harmful gases released by chemicals in the ground, says Barbara Cook, chief of the DTSC's Berkeley division.

Cook and other agency officials supply a barrage of numbers to support their case that Midway ranks among the nation's most vigorously tested — and safest — toxic-waste sites. Starting in 1989, the state conducted nine soil investigations over 14 years, extracting more than 800 samples. Excavation efforts removed 3,000 cubic yards of tainted earth from the complex and four times that much from Bayshore Park. Workers also poured patios to cap the soil around 46 of the 150 town homes — the other 104 units sit on land declared unpolluted — and expanded patios, sidewalks, and parking lots to further reduce the risk of toxic exposure.

State regulators decided against testing for contaminants below Midway's homes owing to logistics, Cook says. The depth of the foundations, coupled with the underground web of sewer, gas, and electrical lines, would require boring 20 feet or more below the topsoil to extract samples; the dirt collected would provide scarce help in measuring toxicity levels closer to the surface. The same physical obstacles would complicate attempts to dig out the soil.

But the absence of those samples aside, Stephen DiZio, chief of the agency's human and ecological risk division, proclaims Midway "perfectly safe." He contends that the anxiety of residents about the earth beneath their homes, while a natural reaction, obscures the rest of the state's work on the site. "As scientists," DiZio says, "we wouldn't put people at risk."

The two state reports released earlier this year that reviewed the Midway cleanup judged it sufficient by state and federal standards. But both studies, positing that health hazards may persist, call for more indoor air tests to better gauge the possible release of gases from chemicals buried under homes.

The reports question the DTSC's conclusion that regulators fully examined the range of toxic fumes that could enter units from underground. In its study, the EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment refers to a petroleum-derived carcinogen called naphthalene. Lab animals that breathe its gas for long periods often develop lung tumors, anemia, skin discoloration, and blurred vision.

The office's report asserts that the risk of exposure to the chemical compound lingers. The problem: Over time, naphthalene, known for its mobility, could crawl to the topsoil beneath homes, areas from which the DTSC has yet to remove soil. If cracks form in a home's foundation or in the sealing around its pipes, gas may seep inside. Such vapors "could represent a significant health risk," according to the report.

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