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?

In its review, meanwhile, the EPA's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee offers a harsher critique of the cleanup. The panel faults the DTSC for disputing the need for more soil and groundwater testing of petroleum hydrocarbons, including benzene, a carcinogen linked to leukemia and anemia in humans. Based on the agency's sampling results, the report states, the degree to which such compounds contaminate Midway remains uncertain "and no remediation [has been] done that would prevent ongoing exposure."

Subra, the outside consultant paid by the EPA to evaluate the Midway cleanup, goes further still in skewering state regulators. Her report blasts the DTSC for failing to excavate under homes given the elevated levels of toxins present near several buildings before the 2001 cleanup. She describes the agency's indoor air sampling as "inadequate," faults its limited testing for PCBs in the soil, and chides it for removing too little dirt.

Hazmat workers scooped out soil at depths of two to five feet. Numerous samples taken from the bottom of those excavations detected chemicals deeper down, state records show. The tests suggest that, in the contaminated area of Midway, residues lie in "approximately 100 percent" of the soil below five feet, Subra wrote. Though relatively small, the chance exists that the harmful toxins will break the surface, creating a health risk.

Subra relates a story in her report that illumines the potential perils of shallow excavations. During the cleanup of a public housing complex in Louisiana, where she lives, workers removed two feet of tainted dirt across much of the property, once the site of a landfill. Toxics experts later found hazardous waste 20 feet below the surface. Earlier this year, an Orleans Parish judge ordered HUD to pay residents, who had enrolled in a program for first-time homeowners, the fair market value of their houses.

"With toxic waste, you have to keep digging," Subra says. "It's not just what you find at the surface."

LaDonna Williams remembers watching her mother and stepfather plant vegetables in her backyard. Kneeling on the ground, they worked the soil with their hands, digging it up, tamping it down. The tomato and okra plants gave Williams, born without her mother's gardening gene, something prettier to behold than the PG&E service center squatting behind her town home.

The mother of six children, Williams lived in Midway Village for a decade, packing up in 1989. Within a few years, she watched her mother and then her stepfather enter the earth, the victims of cancer. "There's no doubt in my mind what killed them," she says. "Because of what's in the ground at that damn place, I had to bury them."

She believes the toxins beneath Midway also inflicted a pair of physical scars she still bears. Rolling up the right sleeve of her sweatshirt, Williams bares dark blemishes on her upper arm, the vestiges of a skin rash. The recurring malady cleared up after she left the housing project. Tufts of her hair stopped falling out and her menstrual cycle no longer produced blood the color of oil. The skin growths and heavy nosebleeds that afflicted her two oldest children, who lived with her in the housing project, diminished in time.

Williams heard about the toxic waste buried at Midway some months after state and county officials first publicly divulged the news in September 1990. They assured residents that the carcinogens posed no short-term health threat.

The next month, a state toxicologist, charged with reviewing an initial soil analysis of Midway, wrote that the report "tends to understate" the danger. The level and potency of the toxins identified, including benzopyrene, a chemical compound known to cause anemia and damage to the immune system, present an "exceedingly high cancer risk," he wrote.

Residents began to grasp the gravity of their dilemma in November that year. Arriving to install patios behind the town homes next to PG&E's boundary, work crews slipped on hooded silver jumpsuits and bulky boots. Other warnings trickled down from health officials: Wear gloves when gardening to avoid skin contact with soil, bathe children multiple times a day if they play outside. Tenants wondered whether to heed the precautions or flee to the nearest relative's house.

"The state did a piss-poor job of telling people about the health risks," says Richard Brownscombe, who served as Midway's property manager from 1984 to 1993. "Everyone was trying to figure out what was happening, and that created a lot of worry."

Years later, a sense of unease tinged with bitterness fills Irma Anderson's living room, the same room where not long ago weeds sprouted from the baseboard. On a recent afternoon, she and two other longtime Midway tenants, Maria Downing and Mary Tanner, gathered to share their medical histories since moving to Midway. Their stories would resonate with the people of Chernobyl.

In 1989, nine years after Anderson settled into her town home, surgeons excised a nine-pound tumor from inside her stomach. A subsequent operation removed seven tumors the size of golf balls. Tanner long has suffered from bronchitis and dizziness; her daughter, who recently left Midway while pregnant because of health concerns, gave birth to a boy who is blind. Downing endures frequent headaches induced by corneal ulcers, a condition she likens to "having pins poked in your eyes." A few years ago, mystified by the cause of her weakened immune system, doctors wondered if she had AIDS. The theory proved wrong. But plagued by acute fatigue and asthma, Downing feels like she's underwater most days. "There are mornings when I can't get myself out of bed."

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