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Jordan Downs demolition to begin any day now despite concerns about lead in the soil

Demolition of part of the Jordan Downs public housing complex is set to begin any day now, according to the Los Angeles Housing Authority, but some residents and activists want the city to hold off until the state determines whether it needs to remove lead-tainted soil from the site.

The housing is set to be replaced by a mixed-use development and will include the property next door, a former steel mill now identified as a brownfield that is being cleaned up after the city found lead, arsenic, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls there.

For more than two years, residents and activists have raised questions about soil contamination in the housing complex, especially after limited testing early on showed high levels of lead. They worry that the pollution from next door drifted during the decades the mill was in operation.

Activists are calling for additional soil sampling and cleanup to take place before buildings are torn down and more dust is stirred up, said Alexander Harnden, an attorney with the Legal Aid Foundation of L.A., which is working with residents.

"Until we know what is in the soil, it’s really inappropriate to be demolishing buildings that are lying on top of that soil, which may spread contaminants around the community," Harnden said.

Lead is a neurotoxin that’s particularly harmful to young children and pregnant women. More than half of the residents at Jordan Downs are minors, Harnden said.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control sent a letter, dated Aug. 5, to the L.A. Housing Authority "advising" it to conduct soil sampling during demolition.

Head of the authority, Doug Guthrie, said  his agency collected new samples last week around the four buildings slated to be knocked down. He expects results in three weeks. But he indicated that he won’t delay the demolition.

"We don’t think there has been any evidence that show elevated levels on the site that we are aware of," Guthrie said. "We decided to do our own testing of the soil on the site so that the proper dust control would be put in place."

Last week city officials, including Mayor Eric Garcetti, took golden hammers to one of the four buildings slated for demolition to mark the beginning of the process.

Guthrie says he opted for the testing before he received the letter from the state agency. He calls communication with the state agency "confusing."

The battle over the contaminated soil at Jordan Downs has been going on for several years.

In 2014, state Department of Toxic Substances Control officials found high levels of lead in soil at Jordan Downs closest to the toxic brownfield. The state agency decided clean-up was not necessary and issued a "no further action" determination after using a method that averaged out the soil sample results – which ranged from 80 parts per million to 145 parts per million. The state has set 80 ppm as a residential threshold for cleanup.

Activists protested the determination, but it wasn't until March of this year that the state agency said it would review that decision. It's part of a larger review of determinations made by a state scientist who has been disciplined for sending racially charged emails.

According to Toxic Substances Control, the review is ongoing. However, Guthrie says he was told by the agency that the “original toxicologist review and recommendation for No Further Action was validated by internal DTSC peer reviews.”

Meanwhile, activists tested soil at the complex on their own with a rented XRF gun, which is the same equipment state and local officials use to test soil. They say they found at least 50 samples with high lead levels and shared that information with the Housing Authority and the state agency.

That information appears to have prompted the state agency to ask the Housing Authority on at least two occasions this summer to conduct soil sampling, according to letters from Toxic Substances Control.

The state agency did not respond to a request for comment.

At Jordan Downs, the four buildings to be demolished are being prepped for take down. Guthrie said part of that process is taking steps to minimize dust clouds, like putting up fences and wetting down large piles of dirt.