Months of ground water tests conducted at the Ujima Village housing complex in Willowbrook ordered by the Regional Water Quality Control Board (RWQCB), have uncovered that the ground water underneath the site is contaminated with crude oil and other toxins. Residents are being offered the opportunity to relocate in 60 days in order to facilitate the environmental investigation and clean up by Exxon Mobil, according to RWQCB.
Congressmembers Maxine Waters, Laura Richardson and County Supervisor Yvonne B. Burke have all expressed concern regarding the relocation of the tenants.
“The regional board has been communicating with Congresswoman Richardson and County Supervisor Burke about the environmental investigation,” said Steve Kane, senior environmental planner of RWQCB.
Many tenants, some of whose families have lived there for several generations, expressed concern about the contamination and the move. “We are developing a position paper about the relocation efforts to send to Congressmembers Waters and Richardson who have received calls and are actively advising the Ujima Village residents’ council,” said Louis Rafte, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation who said that he was contacted by Waters’ office to investigate the relocation efforts.
Besides the concern over the contaminated ground water, Rafke said that the tenants have also complained that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is providing each resident with vouchers and a stipend for moving expenses, is not paying enough for relocation expenses. “They’re not giving the residents enough money to move,” said Rafte, who said the moving expenses range between $1,000 to $2,000 per family. “They are putting a lot of pressure on the tenants to take the voluntary relocation package and to sign for all their relocation benefits, but the benefits just aren’t adequate. Under the Federal Uniform Relation Act, the tenants should be getting more relocation assistance. HUD is also supposed to meet with tenants and find several comparable housing sites that they can move into. Instead, most of the tenants have to look for housing on their own.”
“I believe that Congresswoman Richards and Waters will help make sure that the residents of Ujima Village get the full amount of relocation benefits they are entitled to under the Uniform Relocation Act,” said Rafte.
“They’re going to give us part of the security deposit and $100 for gas to look for a place to move,” said Donald Brown, a resident of Ujima Village for four years. “When you find a place, they give you $200 so you can get a credit check. It’s just a lot of pressure. Everybody is getting frustrated and taking whatever they give us.”
Residents were informed that Ujima Village was once the site of an Athens Tank Farm that processed petroleum and operated from the 1920s to the 1960s. The oil from the tank farm eventually seeped into the soil, causing the contamination.
Bill Romanelli, spokesperson for Exxon Mobil, said, “We’ve been conducting an environmental investigation ordered by the Regional Water Quality Control Board that has been going on throughout the summer. Exxon Mobil is taking the testing very seriously and we’re committed to protecting the health of the residents. We will present those investigative results to county health officials and we’ll follow their lead in terms of the next course of action.”
During a series of community meetings, representatives from HUD and the Community Development Commission reassured the residents that the drinking water is safe to drink but that the extent of the ground water contamination has yet to be determined. Despite complaints from residents that the water is undrinkable, representatives from the RWQCB said that the drinking water is safe and is being supplied by the Golden State Water Company, which provides drinking water and irrigation services.
“Most people here in the Village are not drinking the water,” maintained Joanne Smith, executive director of the Ujima Village residents’ council and a resident for 35 years. “The water board said the drinking water is fine, but no one has told us what the level of contamination is or what the physical effects are.”
Ujima Village resident Mary Shell said she and other residents have been uneasy for years about the water running from their taps.
“I stopped drinking the water four years ago,” admits Shell, who has four children. “Whenever I turned on the water, it came out brown and had a bad odor. The water never tasted right,” she said.
Shell said her family was in good health before they moved from San Bernardino to the 350-unit complex. She immediately noticed that the water tasted and smelled “funny” and that her family began to suffer from health problems.
“Whenever my son Dallas bathed in the water, he would break out in bumps,” said Shell. “We even changed the soap, but we realized that it wasn’t the soap. Whatever was making him break out was in the water,” she said.
“My two youngest children were diagnosed with chronic asthma and my oldest daughter has developed a congestion problem. When she takes a shower, her skin breaks out. The doctors have her on triple antibiotics,” said Shell.
Brown said, “Whenever I bathe in the water, I develop rashes or blisters. Right now I’m seeing a doctor.”
Christina Bradley, a 14-year Ujima Village resident, said that she and most of the residents have been drinking bottled water for years. “The water was turning brown and yellow and making my kids sick,” she recalls. “My kids’ skin started getting lighter and the doctor said they were developing a fungus. He said it was from the water.”
“Sometimes it smells like gas and the smell fills the whole house,” said Crystal Smith, 13, Bradley’s daughter. “When you drink the water, it gives you headaches and stomach aches. When you wash your face in the water, sometimes you get bumps.”
Workers in orange vests have been testing the ground water at the Village every day guarded by sheriff’s deputies. Many tenants questioned the need to have sheriffs standing guard.
“We’re making sure their property doesn’t get stolen,” said one sheriff.
One tenant noted that the workers had plenty of bottled water on hand.