Hundreds sue L.A. County over Ujima Village contamination


More than 400 people, former residents of the county-owned Ujima Village housing complex in Willowbrook and their survivors, have sued the county, the site’s developers and former property owner Exxon-Mobil, contending that they were exposed to toxins while evidence of hazards were concealed.

In a civil lawsuit filed Friday in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the plaintiffs allege that contamination at the 300-unit complex built on a former oil tank storage site caused cancer, leukemia, miscarriages, respiratory distress, chronic infections, asthma, anemia and cognitive and neurological issues. They are demanding unspecified damages to compensate for back rent, injuries, medical costs and what they contend are the wrongful deaths of at least 38 former residents.

Elisa Vasquez, a spokeswoman for the county’s Housing Authority, said Monday that she had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment.

ExxonMobil officials said in a statement that they were first informed of “potential concerns with soil conditions” at Ujima in 2007 and have since been working with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board and other state and local agencies to conduct an extensive environmental investigation.

They said the lawsuit was filed without benefit of the facts.

“Regulatory officials have investigated and found no evidence to date of an immediate public health concern due to environmental conditions at Ujima Village,” the statement said.

Attorneys for the Ujima families contend their clients were kept in the dark about the hazards.

“Residents were oblivious to the fact that the county had been renting them properties that were contaminated,” said one of their attorneys, Jeff Coyner, of Ventura-based Anderson Kill Wood & Bender. “They weren’t advised that testing showed topsoil and vapors coming from the soil were hazardous to them.”

Faye Tolliver, 47, said she and other Ujima residents repeatedly asked county officials about risks but were always told the contamination was deep underground.

Tolliver, a special education teacher with the Los Angeles Unified School District, who lived at the complex from 1983 until January, said she and her daughter suffered rashes and breathing problems until moving out.

Ujima Village was built in 1972 by a group of African American architects and developers -- ujima means “collective work and responsibility” in Swahili. After decades of mismanagement and dilapidation, the complex was taken over by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1990. Los Angeles County purchased it for $1 five years later. With $20 million in renovations needed by 2004, the county tried to sell.

Developers discovered gas and crude oil contamination and by 2008 the California Regional Water Quality Control Board had ordered the county Housing Authority and Exxon to test and clean up the site.

In November 2008, L.A. County supervisors voted to close the complex and relocate remaining tenants.