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PROJECT MAY RAISE RISK OF CANCER

For residents of eight modest houses on a lone block in Wilmington, a replacement bridge and truck expressway planned for construction nearby means a slightly elevated cancer risk.

The government agency that used computer modeling to assess this risk has proposed a solution: new air-conditioning filters to remove the project’s toxic emissions.

“Installing and retrofitting ventilation systems with special filters is a proactive way in which we can mitigate against any potential effects of the proposed project,” said David Gershwin, a spokesman for the Alameda Corridor Transportation Authority.

The situation on East Robidoux Street came to light with the release of the Transportation Authority’s 600-page report on its planned $687-million Schuyler Heim Bridge Replacement and State Route 47 Expressway Project, a joint effort with Caltrans. Transportation officials are counting on the project to reduce traffic and pollution from trucks heading to and from the Los Angeles-Long Beach port complex, the nation’s largest.

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The news has upset residents and raised new questions about future stability in a place long decried by social justice groups as a “sacrifice zone” of commerce and toxic pollution.

“I’m not happy about this, and I’m very worried about what it means for my two young children and the value of our home,” said Rosario Esparza, 37, speaking over a white wrought-iron gate at her home of nine years.

“We were just planning to move and lease the house,” added Esparza, whose home is among those identified as facing a heightened cancer risk. “I’m going to talk to my husband about moving out faster.”

Two doors down, Jesus and Theresa Fernandez, both 74, were stunned to learn that their home of 33 years was among those expected to experience elevated levels of cancer risk.

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“Why our house? Who’d want to buy it now?” Theresa wondered aloud in Spanish. “Doesn’t the same air cover the entire neighborhood?”

The impact zone includes the eight homes on the north side of the 1500 block of East Robidoux Street. Also included is a lone house in Carson, a few miles away, but officials declined to provide an address, citing privacy reasons.

Officials said the risk of cancer in these hot spots would increase by 1%.

Computer models of projected diesel truck traffic and prevailing winds showed “a 10 in a million cancer risk for a person who lives in the impact zone if that person is exposed 350 of 365 days a year, 24 hours a day for 70 years,” said John Doherty, chief executive of the Transportation Authority.

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At the other 16 homes on East Robidoux Street, as well as nearby schools, parks and commercial establishments, the health risk would be below the 10-in-a-million level, a threshold adopted by the Port of Los Angeles for future expansion projects, Doherty said.

In both tiny hot spots, Transportation Authority officials plan to offer to retrofit -- free of charge -- existing heating, ventilating and air conditioning systems with high-efficiency filters capable of removing 90% of the toxic diesel particulates in the air.

“We’ll buy them new systems if none exists,” Doherty said. “Later, we’ll discuss operation costs, maintenance and eventual replacement costs with impacted homeowners. It may mean we give them a cash payment up front.”

The project would replace the seismically deficient Schuyler Heim Bridge with a safer bridge over the Cerritos Channel. It would also construct a new four-lane elevated expressway to allow cars and about 15,000 diesel trucks per day to move from Terminal Island onto Alameda Street.

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The goal is to provide an alternate route from Terminal Island, a major generator of big-rig traffic, to distribution centers and warehouse facilities in the South Bay area, eliminating about 8% of the port-related trucks on the Harbor and Long Beach freeways.

Officials plan to go door to door in the impact zones Monday to explain the situation. A public meeting on the project and its health risks has been scheduled for Jan. 27 at the Banning’s Landing Community Center in Wilmington.

The agency’s findings and mitigation plan drew fire from one environmental group.

“It’s crazy to think a computer model is accurate enough to pinpoint a dangerous health risk in one house and not the one next-door,” said David Pettit, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Peoples’ feelings, hopes and aspirations don’t seem to matter to the planners who want to build a truck freeway through their neighborhoods.”

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A total of 24 homes and a Christian school and church are situated on the little street tucked in the crook of one of California’s busiest transportation corridors, surrounded by refineries, auto salvage yards, rail lines, factories, warehouses and truck routes.

“We’re not scientists, but common sense tells us that no one can say with certainty that there is a little bit of cancer over there but not here,” said Pastor Alfred Carrillo, who has lived on Robidoux Street for nearly six decades.

“Why not just buy us out?” added Carrillo, who owns six lots on the block that he has long been interested in selling. “I think money is tight right now and they are doing everything possible to reduce costs.”

Resident Jesus Fernandez raised a concern that air conditioners wouldn’t solve: “What will protect us when we step outside?”

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louis.sahagun@latimes.com


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