State environmental regulators have ordered Los Angeles housing officials to test the soil in the Jordan Downs housing project in Watts to determine whether lead contamination on a vacant, city-owned parcel extends onto land where more than 2,500 of the city's poorest residents live.
The Housing Authority of the city of Los Angeles agreed to submit a plan by next week to conduct lead screening within the 700-unit complex, according to a series of letters released this week by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
The investigation stems from the housing authority's plan to remove and replace thousands of truckloads of contaminated soil from 21 acres of former industrial land next to the housing project. The site is being cleaned up for a major revitalization project.
The vacant land, known to locals as "the factory," is laced with lead, arsenic, oil and cancer-causing chemicals from years of use as a steel mill and truck repair facility.
The housing authority had not planned to test for lead near existing homes, but some residents and advocacy groups, fearing the contamination is not confined to the walled-off property, demanded a wider investigation of the soil within Jordan Downs.
Housing officials said this week that they are completing a plan to satisfy state toxics regulators by testing the soil surface for lead particles throughout the housing complex, including in residents' yards.
"It's about time," said Thelmy Perez, an organizer with the L.A. Human Right to Housing Collective, one of several advocacy groups that pressed for the testing. "The community has been asking for this since last August and those calls had been ignored."
Larry Goins, senior director of real estate development for the housing authority, said he saw no scientific or health reasons to test the soil in Jordan Downs, where a major lead paint abatement project was completed in the 1990s.
"The reason we didn't do it before is, we don't want to scare our residents," Goins said. "We don't expect to find anything."
State regulators said they are requiring lead screening as a precautionary measure.
"We know what was on the factory site and the residents are right over the wall," said Stephanie Lewis, the Department of Toxic Substances Control's project manager for the Jordan Downs site. "We want to make sure that lead is not identified where the residents reside."
Soil contaminated with lead, a poisonous metal, is of particular concern for children, who can play in the dirt, ingest the dust and be afflicted with permanent learning deficiencies and health problems.
The parcel to be cleaned up is slated for the first phase of a plan to expand and rebuild the 1940s-era housing project by spending $700 million to transform it into a mixed-income "urban village" of up to 1,800 new apartments.
The revitalization plan was dealt a major blow in March when Los Angeles officials learned they would not be awarded a $30-million federal grant to help fund the project.
Jordan Downs is among the top 5% of census tracts statewide most subjected to pollution, according to a recent analysis by the California Environmental Protection Agency.