Watch CBS News

Contaminated Ground Near Willowbrook Day Care Spawns Controversy, Lawsuit

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.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.