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?

A Saturday afternoon in Midway Village presents a version of suburbia as docile as anywhere in the Bay Area. A young girl on a pink bicycle, her dark hair and silver handlebar tassels flying parallel to the ground, rides past a playground where a gaggle of kids romp. Two boys bounce on a spring seesaw while two others, legs pumping, strain for big air on swings. A short distance away, a middle-aged couple strolls amid shadows cast by eucalyptus trees, leaves swaying in the light breeze.

The calmness belies the stereotype of life inside a public housing project, a stereotype that assumes domestic quarrels, sidewalk drug deals, and sporadic gunplay. The 150 town homes of Midway Village, if given a fresh coat of paint to revive their faded blue and salmon-pink exteriors, could pass for just another middle-class enclave in San Mateo County. A learning center and daycare facility sit on the tidy grounds, huddled against the foot of San Bruno Mountain in Daly City, a few blocks from the Cow Palace. Even the massive PG&E complex that borders the housing project almost recedes from notice, partially hidden by the mesh fence and foliage that divide the properties.

In fact, aside from posted signs that warn "State And Local Regulations Are Enforced," Midway, home to some 500 people, subtly cloaks its public-housing identity. Visitors will find still less that hints at its turbulent past, or the dispute that has reignited over the toxic waste buried beneath its well-groomed lawns.

Midway Village sits next to a sprawling PG&E complex that includes a service station, storage yard, and power substation.
James Sanders
Midway Village sits next to a sprawling PG&E complex that includes a service station, storage yard, and power substation.
James Sanders
The state expanded parking lots, sidewalks, and patios to “cap” contaminated soil.
James Sanders
The state expanded parking lots, sidewalks, and patios to “cap” contaminated soil.
Midway residents Tanner (left) and Anderson, with TannerÂ’s blind grandson.
James Sanders
Midway residents Tanner (left) and Anderson, with TannerÂ’s blind grandson.
“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.
A day care center sits on MidwayÂ’s grounds, as does a learning center.
James Sanders
A day care center sits on MidwayÂ’s grounds, as does a learning center.

In 1980, PG&E discovered hazardous chemicals in the soil on its property and notified state regulators, who ordered the utility to sponge up its mess. But not until November 1989, after the company's tests detected carcinogens buried near Midway's buildings and an adjacent park, would the state conduct its own soil analysis at the housing project. Another 10 months passed before public officials told residents that some of their homes rested on toxin-laden dirt taken from PG&E's property decades earlier.

Tenants long had theorized about the source of varied illnesses that afflicted them after they moved to Midway. Court records show that more than one-third of those living in the complex in the early '90s reported health problems: lung and stomach cancer, asthma and bronchitis, anemia and blurred vision. Women suffered miscarriages, stillbirths, infertility, and other reproductive maladies, while children endured skin rashes and frequent nosebleeds. Residents regarded the news of toxic waste in the ground as the answer to their medical riddle.

State officials disagreed, denying that the chemical residues posed a risk and rejecting the need for a health survey, even as they prepared to clean up the site. Tenants reacted by suing multiple public agencies and PG&E in state and federal court. A state judge tossed their case, ruling that they lacked the proof to blame their ailments on soil impurities. The federal suit met a similar fate when a judge declared the U.S. government immune from liability.

The state started its first extensive cleanup of Midway in 1993, hauling away truckloads of tainted dirt and expanding parking lots, sidewalks, and patios to "cap" contaminated areas. The action failed to mollify residents, who claimed their health woes persisted. By 2000, with tenants picketing outside PG&E's site and its San Francisco offices, state lawmakers prodded the county to offer subsidy vouchers that would enable residents to rent private housing.

Tenants balked. They argued that, for their years of paying rent and living unwittingly on top of harmful toxins, the government should give them private homes and cover their medical bills. "We're sick. We're dying," one told the Chronicle. "Just giving us Section 8 vouchers at this point doesn't cut it."

A year later, despite repeated assurances that residents were safe, state regulators initiated another major cleanup. Hazmat workers in blue jumpsuits scoured tons of soil from the portion of Midway that abuts PG&E's property, and from neighboring Bayshore Park. Yet the dirt beneath homes went untouched.

Public and media interest in Midway ebbed after the second cleanup, as did the collective will of residents. Most tired of the struggle or moved away, leaving the fight to a small band of advocates. Sixteen years after the upheaval began, however, fresh doubts have surfaced about the state's work as toxic-waste janitor and its efforts to protect residents. This summer, a division of the California Environmental Protection Agency released a report on the $8 million remediation of Midway and Bayshore Park. As part of the project review, the state EPA paid an outside consultant, Wilma Subra, to assess the cleanup. Among myriad criticisms, she cited the state's failure to remove dirt beneath Midway's homes, patios, sidewalks, streets, and parking lots.

As a result, Subra wrote, "There is the potential that large quantities of contamination remain on site at [or] very near the surface."

Similarly, both the state's study and a second review issued in October by an EPA advisory committee pinpoint apparent flaws in the cleanup. The reports raise concerns about whether regulators fully probed the range of toxins present, including naphthalene and other petroleum-based chemicals linked to lung, stomach, and skin cancer in lab animals.

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."

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."

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.

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."

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."

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."

Whether the suggestions will influence Adams remains unknown. Two months after the Sacramento meeting, she sent a letter to Bay that described permanent relocation of residents as less "cost effective" than "using well-designed methods of cleanup which allow people to remain safely in their homes."

Decisions about relocation of residents or whether to shutter Midway involve so many federal, state, and county agencies that, in the end, nothing may change. The bureaucratic morass almost guarantees the status quo will endure, so new ideas and initiatives disappear into the muck. It's a different kind of toxic stew than what lurks below Midway Village. But four women wade on.

"Somehow, some way," LaDonna Williams says, "we need to figure out a way to do what's right for the people of Midway."

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