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?

Downing's 23-year-old son developed Bell's palsy as a boy; the neurological condition briefly paralyzed one side of his face. Her teenage daughter suffers from blackouts and severe asthma. Under the circumstances, it's fair to wonder why the family stays. It's also easy to appreciate why they do: Downing rents her two-bedroom unit for $950 a month, a figure straight out of the '70s.

"Where else are you going to go in the Bay Area?" she asks. "We're stuck here."

Apart from economics, however, Downing and her cohorts in the Midway crusade blame another culprit for their quandary — the county Housing Authority. Indeed, they rank the agency above PG&E and the DTSC on their roll call of main offenders, arguing that housing officials deprived them of equitable options once Midway's dirty secret surfaced.

Duane Bay, the Housing Authority's director, speaks in the even tone of a man inured to accusations. He politely answers the criticisms of residents, detailing the choices offered to them since 2000: Those living on the capped area of the housing project can move to a unit in the untainted portion; they can jump to the top of the waiting list for an apartment at the agency's housing complexes in Colma and Half Moon Bay; or they can join a waiting list for one of the 324 affordable housing units within the county run by nonprofits.

By Bay's count, 14 tenants moved to an uncapped unit within Midway, and the same number joined the waiting lists, most of them securing a unit within a year. Many more simply left, thinning the number of tenants familiar with — and indignant about — the complex's toxic history.

"We've tried to accommodate people in good faith," says Bay, who joined the agency a year ago. "It's a sensitive issue."

But his version of events, while accurate, skips past at least two crucial points. A full decade lapsed between residents learning that they lived on toxic waste and the county supplying housing alternatives, and then only after much pressure from advocates and elected officials. Nor did the county consider temporary relocation of tenants during any stage of the cleanup, as occurred in Alhambra.

The Housing Authority provided one other option to residents in 2000, when Midway tensions crescendoed. Officials dangled federal subsidy vouchers that would enable residents to rent from private landlords. Tenants scoffed, asserting that, with the disparity between the maximum rental price allowed to voucher holders and the area's sky-high rents, Monopoly money held more value. One person relocated under the offer, which the agency rescinded after a year, claiming a lack of tenant interest.

Disdain for the vouchers derived from a more profound resentment still harbored by residents. Federal housing guidelines dictate that they contribute 30 percent of their income to rent. Longtime residents such as Downing and Anderson estimate they have paid $200,000 in all to live on land that, for years, they didn't know was polluted. They feel swindled.

"For what they've done to me all these years, the money I've paid, I want a brand-new house," Anderson says. "They damaged my health and my children. That's not asking for a handout. That's asking for what's right."

Their demands received a hearing three months ago in Sacramento during a meeting presided over by Linda Adams, head of the EPA. Midway advocates, state and county officials, and members of the agency's environmental justice advisory committee hashed over relocation and cleanup issues. They also broached the most delicate subject of all — that of whether, in a region starved for subsidized housing, Midway Village should close.

Dorsey, the San Diego County environmental official, minced few words, a meeting transcript shows. " ... I think we all should ask ourselves: Could we live on a hazardous waste landfill? Could we have our children grow up on a hazardous waste landfill? I've asked myself that question. And quite frankly, my answer would be no. Quite frankly, I would be ... questioning whether I am living in a safe environment."

Barry Wallerstein, head of the South Coast Air Quality Management District in Diamond Bar, Calif., echoed that call for introspection. "Ask yourself whether you would live there," he said. "Ask yourself if you were offered an opportunity to move from one part of a toxic site to another part of a toxic site, whether that's an option you would take ... "

In January, the DTSC will begin a nine-month review of Midway, a survey that will examine its ongoing suitability for residential use. But even before the review starts, the EPA's advisory committee appears to have formed its opinion. As a coda to its report on the Midway cleanup, the panel has prepared a letter to Adams that outlines its findings. A copy of the draft obtained by SF Weekly reveals a committee gently nudging the EPA to rethink its Midway approach.

"Setting aside for the moment the question of ongoing exposure at Midway Village, it seems clear to us that there will always be questions about possible exposures at such [remediated] sites, especially by those who suffer ill health," the letter states. "The psychological stress this creates, in and of itself, is an adverse health impact. In general, we urge you and the staff of DTSC to review the advisability of allowing residential use of these sites in the future."

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