'Epitome of neglect:' Coalition raises environmental health concerns in Watts, urges leaders to act

The metal recycling plant adjacent to Jordan High faces several lawsuits.

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Wednesday, August 3, 2022 10:24PM
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Meanwhile, lab testing commissioned by LAUSD found lead concentrations on the campus were 75 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency defines as a hazardous threshold.

WATTS, LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- From the U.S. Attorney's Office to the Los Angeles Unified School District, representatives with different agencies boarded a bus for what community leaders called a toxic tour of Watts.

It was guided by someone who knows and has lived this community's history.

"I'm 69 years old, which is really, really frightening for me, because what I'm told is that if you're born and raised in Watts, you stand to live 12 to 14 years less than if you were born on the other side of town," said Timothy Watkins, the president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.

Watkins is also part of the Coalition for Healthy Families, which is made up of several groups advocating for environmental justice in Watts.

The tour's first stop was Atlas Iron & Metal Company, Inc.

"Sort of the epitome of neglect. Seventy years next to a high school," said Watkins.

The metal recycling plant adjacent to Jordan High School faces several lawsuits, most recently by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Meanwhile, lab testing commissioned by LAUSD found lead concentrations on the campus were 75 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency defines as a hazardous threshold.

The school district points to Atlas as the cause, and in 2020, filed a lawsuit, among other things, to recover funds it has spent on cleaning up the contamination.

Students like Heaven Watson and Genesis Cruz detail what they've experienced, describing loud noise, shrapnel, a bad odor, and dust.

"Sometimes we even visually see the haze of dust or whatever particles are in the air coming over into our school, wondering, 'What is that?'" said Watson.

"We'll just hear a loud bang, and it's like, it's so sudden, so we'll jump and we'll kind of laugh it off," said Cruz. "But it's not normal for us to be going through stuff like that. But for us, it became our normal, and I think that should change because this is not normal. Schools in Malibu and Beverly Hills, they don't experience this."

Carlos Torres, LAUSD's director of the Office of Environmental Health and Safety told Eyewitness News that while their office is not made up of a big group, they are dedicating a significant percentage of resources to Jordan High School.

"I have dedicated at least one staff person per day who goes to Jordan High school every day to check, make sure nothing major has happened," Torres said.

The Coalition for Health Families, which has posted photos and videos of the operation, is calling on agencies with oversight to go beyond civil litigation.

"Criminal action so that we can go ahead and shut down the site. But more importantly, so that we can clean up the site and ensure that our students have a safe place to go to school," said Ingrid Rivera-Guzman, president of the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles and member of the coalition.

The Environmental Protection Agency told Eyewitness News that it's investigating the facility's operations.

"We've been looking at the facility's emissions, storm water discharges and how they manage their waste," said Amy Miller, director of the enforcement and compliance assurance division of the EPA Pacific Southwest Region 9.

Miller said the EPA is also working with other relevant agencies to determine the source of contamination and whether it's Atlas.

"To understand what actions they have done," she said. "Some of them have been looking at contamination off-site, along with other sources concern, potentially."

Eyewitness News reached out to Atlas for an interview but did receive a response.

"We have to really look at the impacts of redlining that have led to the environmental racism that we are all currently living through," said Rivera-Guzman.

According to the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool, the areas around Jordan High School have some of the highest risk.

State researchers have determined they have a greater risk than 80% to 90% of other neighborhoods in California due to hazardous waste facilities and pollution.

For the coalition, the contamination found at Jordan High is not isolated, more like the tip of the iceberg.

They're drawing attention to other sites over contamination and pollution concerns, and there are generations of leaders speaking up.

"I joined the social justice club, and through that, I was able to advocate in D.C. about the water pollution, soil contamination, and air pollution going on in Watts," said Watson.

Watkins is urging those who went on the tour to listen and to act.

"Working with the elected and appointed officials here, that we might make something remarkable happen that Watts has been waiting for more than 100 years, while it was living under the pressure of malign neglect," Watkins said.