LOS ANGELES (CBS) — More than 1,000 former residents and neighbors of a Willowbrook Apartment complex are seeking environmental justice, claiming that their illnesses are related to contamination in the ground below.

Their complex and a daycare located just south of Watts were built on contaminated ground and are now the center of many mystery illnesses.

The little angels at Honey’s Little Angels Child Care Center in Willowbrook took playful delight in mugging for our camera. But just a few feet away from the good times, the padlocked fences and dire warning signs at the abandoned Ujima Village Apartment Complex signal a possible toxic danger under the ground.

“It’s colon cancer and it has spread to my liver,” Donald Brown said.

“I have pain now. Yeah, even now,” said Dominique Nichol Tanner.

Both Brown and Tanner lived in Ujima Village right across the street from the child care center for many years before the L.A County Housing Authority ordered Ujima Village closed down and fenced off.

That was in 2008 after underground soil and water samples indicated heavy concentrations of dangerous toxic substances. Substances like benzene, a carcinogen; hexane, a neurotoxin; and methane gas, flammable and explosive. They are the remnants of a petroleum storage tank farm at the site.

The apartment complex, the child care center, and the park next door where Brown remembers fishing with the kids and cooking the catch for dinner are located on a former petroleum tank farm. That was before the authorities posted signs warning of contaminated fish.

In July Brown found out he has stage-4 cancer.

“Having to go through chemo, getting needles in my arm… Being split up the middle, you know, surgery,” Brown said while showing us his scars.

Tanner was born with a highly unusual birth defect.

“I was born with a right kidney – no left. They say that I’m like a one-in-a-million,” she said.

Both Tanner and Brown, who says his doctor said his case was highly unusual, are certain their medical problems were caused by exposure to the toxic compounds below ground, when they lived at Ujima Village Apartments.

They have joined in suing Exxon Mobil and L.A. County in a suit on behalf of 900 former Ujima tenants and other neighbors.
“We have high numbers of cancers, respiratory illnesses, miscarriages, skin rashes, asthma,” said plaintiff attorney Dave Bender.

The charges in the lawsuit are disputed by state and county officials as well as Exxon Mobil, which says, “Exxon Mobil believes these lawsuits have been filed without benefit of the facts, including the fact that regulatory officials have investigated and found no evidence to date of an immediate public health concern from environmental conditions at this site.”

The most immediate problem from the underground toxins is what to do about the children at the child care center across the street.

“Probably the worst location happens to be at the day care center over here, where at five feet, the benzene is 1,000 times above what it’s allowed to be,” said Michael Kinworthy of Waterstone environmental inc.

But Exxon points out that the above ground samples show no benzene in the air the children are breathing. Nonetheless parents, like Carlest McCall, who lived in Ujima Village for 20 years, are now concerned about their children, like her 4-year-old son, who attends the Honey’s Little Angels child care center.

“Is the school contaminated too, because a lot of kids go here? New babies go here. It could mess up a lot of people,” McCall said.

“Move that day care center ASAP. Get those children out of what may be harm’s way,” said L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who represents the district where the complex is located.

He says his office is working directly with the child care center to insure that it moves its facility off the contaminated property to a safer location as soon as possible. But he gave no timetable.

However, on the larger issue of whether the underground toxins are responsible for the cancer cases and birth defects among former Ujima Village residents, there is no agreement.

Francine Diamond is the chair of the regional water quality control board, which is overseeing the environmental cleanup at Ujima Villiage.

“Yes, I’m satisfied that the air is clean. As you know, we do ongoing testing and as soon as our data becomes available, it is released. The air is clean,” Diamond asserted.

But Environmental Specialist Michael Kinworthy, whose company is working for the former Ujima residents in their lawsuit, disagrees.
Ultimately, the fumes will continue to migrate to the surface and people will be exposed to it over a period of time,” Kinworthy said.

Brown said we would not even be having this debate if this was taking place in an upscale, suburban neighborhood.

“If this would have been Beverly Hills or Torrance, they wouldn’t have built something like this in a white area,” he said.

“I would agree. They would not and did not allow oil storage in the areas in Beverly Hills,” Diamond said.

I asked Ridley-Thomas if he thought that the county health department would be out there the next day if this happened in Beverly Hills.

“Well I don’t know the answer to that and I’m not going to be baited,” he said.

Brown asks where are the scientific surveys of people who lived in Ujima Village?

“Where’s the Environmental Protection Agency since it’s so big. Where’s the health department,” he asks?

“All we can do is ask the county health department to do that. We don’t have the authority to make them, but the County Board of Supervisors certainly does have the authority,” Diamond said.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas agreed.

“They don’t have control over the county health department. That would be correct,” he said.

But for some former Ujima Village residents, like Brown, time is of the essence.

“Every day, every second is a battle. I’m fighting every minute, fighting for my life.”

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said the county will be using its “211” phone number to field complaints from former Ujima Village residents beginning Thursday afternoon.

Comments (9)
  1. Kathy Post says:

    It is a shame how much of this is in our neighborhoods through out the US and there is no real help for citizins. I live in the Carousel Home Tract in Carson, CA. There has been no agency helping us, we merely hear for over 2 years now “verbal” words of we are monitoring, looking at data, be patient etc. At least the OC residents were evacuated from the land, nobody condems our land. You cannot sell your home unless you hide or don’t disclose the contamination, something I could never do, hide it to trade places with some unsuspecting family.

    Many of us here are sick, I have been slammed with immune related illnesses two years after I bought my home here. I wonder who helps us, there appears to be no urgency with 285 families living on top of these high levels and so many home owners with health issues. We are just paperwork on everyone’s desk 8 hrs a day. How does this happen in America where no agency get’s you out? Where is the hope before more damage is done? Rgds

    1. Force Them says:

      I feel for you…Sounds like you need to organize better. Have a meeting with your community and setup a meeting with you local congressman/woman, insist on getting the EPA involved.

      If it were me and all prudent actions were taken, I’d rally every one affected to cease paying property taxes until the issue it resolved. You don’t pay taxes “just because” you pay it for something in return…DEMAND IT!

      Good luck to you Kathy, happy thoughts your way.

  2. Kathy says:

    We are pretty organized, meetings with Regional Water Board, City Officials, rallies with Erin Brockovick, letters to government officials, including the LA City Tax (who attends meetings) Collector, Attorney General etc. All we get for over 2 years is “verbal” responses of be patients, we are monitoring etc. No action. They have done repeated testing here, digging, drilling etc, the levels are up to 1000 times above what EPA allows for Health and safety.

    The next “Pilot Test” coming that they will put us through while living here, is digging 10 ft down around our homes and inject chemicals into the ground. Imagin the stress of all that, opening up the ground and the green house emissions that will create. Allot of people here are sick or have died already of cancer etc. I do not think with my illnesses I will live long enought to see the end of all this. My Father died here last year, my sister and niece who lived here both had civercial cancer etc. Apparently we are old news and is the most Hopeless feeling 285 families have living here and our officals do nothing, there is no urgency. Thanks for your comments anyway. Best Wishes

  3. Carlys says:

    Looks To Me Like The Problem Can Be Anywhere. I Thought It Was Racists For Mr. Brown To Say This Would Not Happen In A White Neighborhood!! The Problem Is The Majority Of Us Voted Democratic And If You Ain’t A Union Member They Don’t Care About Your Complaints Period!!! Where Is The Change Obama????

  4. Kathy says:

    When I spoke to Erin Brockovich at one of our protests and asked how does this happen in American, she told me she has seen/been involved in over 400 hundred neighborhoods like ours.

    I am ashamed that before I lived in something like this, how come I had never heard about or knew of it before…… happening all over the US. And it is shocking that there is NO urgencey from officials to get people out…… I have read allot of cases where officials hide it from residents until it “has to” come out. I don’t think it has to do with race that dictates where it happens, I think it is how much money you have and power to demand it not happen in your neighborhood. As we know, in America money talks and gets action, humane life and safety take a back seat to money.

  5. Mrs. Johnson says:

    I lived in Ujima Village for 32 years and I am sad to say I had never heard of this contamination until it was way too late. My baby sister passed away of breast cancer when she was 34 yrs old and there is no history of breast cancer in our family. My Mother passed away from a massive heart attack and that is not in our family history either. I along with other famiily members have skin rashes and breathing problems and bone problems. We were told there was nothing wrong and then they told us to move out because there was something wrong.

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