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Watts environmental concerns continue to trouble residents

First part of a three-part series

Cory Alexander Haywood | 11/8/2017, 8:45 p.m.
Tim Watkins may be reaching his breaking point...

Tim Watkins may be reaching his breaking point.

For decades he’s worked tirelessly to increase awareness of the many environmental hazards plaguing Watts.

So far, he’s received dozens of verbal commitments and promises from peers, colleagues, and big shots who’ve agreed to join his cause. But talking and doing are two separate concepts - and Watkins continues to fight virtually alone.

“I’ve gone to just about every public official I can think of to ask for help,” he bemoaned during a telephone interview.

The raspy sound of his voice quickly elevated to a howl.

“They won’t help me!”

Watkins believes he’s done everything in his power to improve conditions in Watts. “ What else am I supposed to do?”

As president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), Watkins has devoted the larger part of his existence to serving the interests of his chosen people.

He knows the Black experience in America is disturbingly predictable for working-class folk and those sitting beneath the poverty line.

Struggle is par for the course - and hopelessness increases with every generation that dares to hope for progress, only to experience the harshness of reality.

For evidence of the numerous maladies tormenting low-income African Americans, a casual observer needn’t look beyond the blighted streets of Watts, Los Angeles.

In a parallel universe, this neighborhood would be a thriving beacon of cultural and economic diversity.

But the residents aren’t living in a dream world - their reality parallels a wide-ranging siege of environmental contamination permeating urban communities nationwide.

Amid growing concerns, a groundbreaking ceremony was held in June for the first phase of a $1 billion redevelopment of the Jordan Downs public housing project in Watts.

The plan aims to convert the 700-unit site into a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood of 1,410 units with 160,000 square feet retail space, nine acres of green space and a new recreation center at East 99th Place and Laurel Place.

The plan has been in place for nearly a decade and was delayed due to funding shortages and the discovery that soil at part of the site was contaminated with lead and other toxins from its past use as a steel factory.

In June, the Los Angeles Unified School District submitted documents to CBS revealing lead and arsenic contamination on the football field and baseball field of Jordan High School, which shares a border with the new development.

Monika Shankar, with health advocacy group Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles told authorities that an underground plume of toxic chemicals, including trichloroethylene, was discovered underneath the development. “Which is a very harmful chemical, especially for children and pregnant mothers,” she explained.

Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 6 percent of all children ages 1-2 years and 11 percent of Black (non-Hispanic) children ages 1-5 years have blood lead levels in the toxic range. Children with developing bodies are especially vulnerable because their rapidly developing nervous systems are particularly sensitive to the effects of lead.