Cleanups Fuel Debate: How Much Is Enough?

December 16, 2003|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

For ten years, Juanita Tate has worked to bring something so basic to a neighborhood that most take it for granted: a supermarket.

As director of the nonprofit Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, Tate's goal is to revive an area that was the center of unrest during the city's 1992 riots by filling in a checkerboard of vacant lots and old factories with housing and soccer fields.

But Tate's revitalization plans are repeatedly being held up by a problem common in urban areas throughout California: toxic chemicals lingering in the land, left behind by decades of industrial use. California has more brownfields, as the tainted sites are known, than any other state, and has been slower than most in cleaning them up. At the heart of the delays is a question that divides regulators, environmentalists and developers: How clean is clean enough?

The question often comes down to the equivalent of a few grains of sand -- toxic residue measured in parts per billion. Many of the chemicals California considers dangerous have only been scientifically proven to cause health problems in laboratory animals. But the state, ever careful to reduce the risk of harm, often requires contaminant levels to be reduced far below the threshold. For a builder trying to redevelop a large contaminated lot, parts per million can add up to millions of dollars in cleanup costs.

The shopping center that Concerned Citizens is building with a private developer at Slauson and Central avenues will not only feature the only supermarket for miles in an area starved for major grocery chains, but as Tate sees it, serve as a source of civic pride -- proof that a community stigmatized by the riots and the daily carnage recorded on the police blotter has the will to better itself.

"It's not just a shopping center to us," Tate said. "We're going to bring goods and services to this community that have not been here before. We won't be the poor old South Central everybody wants to talk about."

However, the land the shopping center would be built on has been the site of a procession of polluting industries since the 1920s, including a plumbing shop and truck repair lot, and is crisscrossed by abandoned railroad tracks. Uncertainty over what contaminants might linger beneath the surface have complicated the construction process by driving up insurance and lending costs and leading to delays as a battery of environmental tests were performed on the site, according to city officials involved in the project.

California has anywhere from 90,000 to 120,000 parcels with known or suspected pollution -- from former gas stations and dry cleaners to old oil fields and glue factories -- according to accepted estimates from the state treasurer and real estate groups. Like Tate's supermarket site, most are in older, poorer neighborhoods, where the profit margin on a successful redevelopment investment is often too small to cover the costs of an environmental cleanup without some form of government assistance.

Yet California is a decade behind most other states in formulating a comprehensive policy to treat contaminated properties and return them to productive use as new homes, parks and businesses. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who promised to help clean up brownfields during his successful campaign, is now facing pressure to begin crafting a solution.

"A lot of the Eastern states have been working for years to make it easier to clean up these sites. California has lagged behind," said Gregory Trimarche, a Los Angeles environmental attorney who has co-written a book on brownfields. "As a result, California is widely seen as the most difficult place to do a brownfields project. It is certainly the most expensive."

The financially strapped state lacks the cash to offer cities and developers incentives or loans to redevelop contaminated properties, a solution that all parties can agree on, and for the past five years, environmental groups and builders have clashed over another possible solution, a rewriting of the state's toxic cleanup rules.

Finding a way to stimulate cleanups by the private sector is crucial, experts say, because it would probably take hundreds of millions of dollars to treat all of the brownfield sites in the state. For example, the cost of cleaning up the site where Concerned Citizens wants to build a shopping center is now estimated at $768,000, according to city officials, which is actually far less than they had first feared.

"If the lowball estimate of 90,000 [brownfields] is accurate, there could never be enough public funding to cover this issue," said Rick Brausch of the California Environmental Protection Agency. "The goal has always been to leverage private investment."

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