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 three women rely on herbal remedies to cope, after years of taking prescribed drugs that seldom reduced their symptoms. They keep the heat off in their homes even in winter, preferring layers of clothing to the congestion and vertigo that arise soon after the furnace fires up. "Better to be cold than sick," says Tanner, a resident since 1976. "Or worse."

Anderson, Tanner, and Downing, along with Williams, make up the nucleus of the tenants' group demanding redress for their ill health and medical bills. In response to the state's refusal to conduct a medical survey of present and past residents, the women drew up a Midway illness map. The diagram provides a limited record of dozens of physical ailments — blackouts, cancer, sterility, birth defects — known to have afflicted people there during the last 30 years.

In 1996, residents asked a San Francisco State University researcher to perform a health study of Midway. The evaluation compared the housing complex to an Oakland neighborhood of similar socioeconomic status. The results showed a higher rate of adverse physical and psychological conditions among Midway's tenants, ranging from anemia to chronic anxiety.

But neither personal anecdotes nor the unpublished survey aided residents in litigation. Almost 300 of them sued the county housing authority and PG&E in San Mateo Superior Court in 1991. Six years later, a judge dismissed the suit, finding that residents fell short of confirming a link between their illnesses and chemical exposure.

The legal defeat persuaded about one-third of the plaintiffs to accept PG&E's settlement offer while the case was appealed, with the amounts ranging from $2,000 to $4,500 a person. Undeterred, the rest sought to bolster their claims through science. In 1998, a group of them submitted to a DNA analysis performed by a San Francisco doctor. He reported genetic aberrations in 52 of the 58 people examined.

Federal health officials judged the data insufficient to tie the anomalies to toxic waste at Midway. (The state Court of Appeals, also unconvinced, tossed the suit in 2000.) Yet the DNA sampling and the earlier medical survey of residents, while less than definitive barometers of their collective health, warrant follow-up by the state, according to the EPA's Environmental Justice Advisory Committee.

State health experts argue that a survey would be an exercise in randomness, considering the infinite variables involved. "In the absence of documented exposures and a controlled study, it's difficult to gauge what the health risks are," says Rick Kreutzer, chief of environmental investigations for the Department of Health Services. Taking the cue from state toxics regulators, who place toxin levels below the threshold of harm at Midway, "there's no reason to think that people aren't safe there," he says.

At the same time, by rejecting pleas to conduct a survey, state health experts all but ensure a scarcity of documented exposures. Williams views that refusal as an aspect of what she calls "environmental racism," a rubric that advocates invoke when contrasting the Midway cleanup to one in Alhambra, a town near Los Angeles, in the late 1990s.

The Southern California project involved mopping up toxic waste beneath 19 private homes located on land where a gas manufacturing plant once stood. Hazmat workers removed and replaced driveways, sidewalks, and patios to scrape away tainted soil and dug out dirt from crawl spaces beneath homes. The excavation level averaged four to five feet, compared to two to five feet at Midway. The state also relocated homeowners during the six-month cleanup. A self-laudatory press release issued by the DTSC touted the effort as a "remarkable achievement."

An agency spokesman points out that dealing with private homeowners instead of public housing agencies, along with the smaller scale of the cleanup, simplified the Alhambra job. Even so, the second Midway cleanup occurred in 2001, three years after work at Alhambra ended, and "the same degree of remediation was not undertaken in two similar sites," the EPA's advisory committee notes in its report.

"This indicates that either a uniform standard of care does not exist, or a change in the standard of care did occur, and that the change has not been addressed at Midway," the report states.

Midway residents see another rationale for the difference: Most of the Alhambra homeowners were white, while blacks and Latinos make up the majority of the housing project's population. "People tell us we're playing the race card," Williams says. "My response to that is, it's the government that's playing the race card. If this were a rich white community, do you think this would be happening?"

The sentiment might seem predictable, coming from an aggrieved former resident. But others detached from the struggle appear to share Williams' perspective, at least to a point. The EPA's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, in compiling its report on Midway, solicited written feedback from a review committee. Michael Dorsey, chief of San Diego County's hazardous materials division, offered blunt analysis.

"If [Midway] was a wealthy community or a community that had strong political influence," he wrote, "I think we all know that these people would be relocated and adequately compensated."

Maria Downing's town house stands adjacent to PG&E's property in the area of Midway Village considered polluted. Cracks line her concrete patio, and she suspects cracks line her home's foundation. "Whatever's in the ground is causing our problems," she says. "There's no doubt in my mind."

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