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Toxic Churn

On a crisp, fall day in Santa Ana, California, Mary Acosta Rodriguez Martinez Garcia steps forward gingerly, leaning on her cane as she walks to the spot along the railroad tracks that intersect with Santa Ana Boulevard. This is where her grandfather’s house once stood, before it was swallowed whole by the expansion of the…

On a crisp fall day in Santa Ana California, Mary Acosta Rodriguez Martinez Garcia walks gingerly along the tracks that cross Santa Ana Boulevard. This was the spot where her grandfather’s house stood before it was destroyed by the expansion of Santa Ana Boulevard. It is now the Orange County Civic Center and downtown Santa Ana. Like her grandfather’s home, where she lived most of her childhood, most of the landmarks from her formative years during the 1940s and 1950s — the places and buildings that she cherished the most from her youth — have long disappeared.

The Logan barrio was surrounded by orange groves and walnut orchards. This gave it a pastoral feel throughout Garcia’s childhood. The barrio was also wedged between two railroad tracks at its western and eastern borders. The original inhabitants of the neighborhood were European Americans. As they left, Mexican and Mexican Americans moved in. Garcia’s uncles were among them. They worked in the orange orchards picking oranges or packing houses and sorting the walnut and citrus fruits.

During the early part of the 20th century, trains hauled goods ranging from citrus to lumber out to destinations across the country. As the city began to welcome industry, goods started reflecting the new businesses in the area. These included oil, petroleum and aviation gasoline.

Insurance maps created by the Sanborn Map Company between 1920 and 1960 show that the area surrounding Logan’s residential core, known as the Greater Logan Area, included fossil fuel companies that stored their oil and gasoline in steel tanks above ground. Garcia’s grandfather was near one oil depot. Garcia recalled as a child jumping over oil puddles on her way to school. “We just thought it was part of living there,” Garcia, now 78 years old, told Grist. “It’s not like everybody lives near the oil on ground

An industrial business, left, bordered by barbed wire, presses against the yard of a home in the Logan neighborhood, where Grist found hazardous levels of soil lead contamination. Grist / Daniel A. Anderson

Heavyweight businesses like Standard Oil Company, General Petroleum Corporation of California, and Shell Oil Company shared the neighborhood with a foundry, a lead smelter and battery recycling facility, and a liquid fertilizer company. Garcia wondered if the polluting nature of these facilities and firms could have contributed to Garcia’s family members suffering from asthma. Garcia said, “Nowadays you wouldn’t have that.” Her relatives were not unhappy. Given the poverty they lived in, her relatives were thankful to have jobs and homes to support their families. Her grandparents would repeat a Mexican saying, “Los Estados Uniidos para vivir, Mexico para morir” — they could live well in the United States by working hard and then return to Mexico to end their lives in peace.

Today there is little evidence that these businesses existed in Garcia’s time. Even if you use the most detailed governmental data to paint a picture about industrial pollution in Santa Ana, it is difficult to conclude that Logan is hazardous. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory, a database that catalogs 35 years of site-specific pollution, shows 99 distinct entries in Santa Ana since the program’s inception. One chemical company borders the Logan barrio.

A Grist analysis of historical company directories offers a different perspective. Most states, including California, have published directories documenting industrial businesses since the mid-20th century, listing addresses, products produced, and number of employees, among other data points. Borrowing methodology from the 2018 book Sites Unseen: Uncovering Hidden Hazards in American Cities, by sociologists Scott Frickel and James Elliott, Grist cataloged the accumulation of defunct industrial sites in these directories that have evaded the oversight of the EPA, often due to their age. California directories cataloging manufacturing businesses that Grist analyzed as far back as the 1960s describe nearly 2,000 such sites dotting Santa Ana’s urban landscape. More than 300 were active as of 2014, the most recent directory Grist analyzed. Other businesses in the chemical, plastic, and fabricated metals industries might not have had their toxic footprints cleaned. Some properties were actually rezoned to residential use.

Toxic Release Inventory Sites

Relic Sites

The EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory documents 99 sites where hazardous material may have been released in Santa Ana.

But state business directories show 300 potentially hazardous sites were active as recently as 2014.

Since the 1960s, nearly 2,000 industrial businesses with the potential to contaminate have dotted the city. The majority of these businesses closed their doors without anyone realizing the pollution they left behind.

Ongoing noise and pollution from industrial businesses like this one, seen from Logan resident Frances Orozco’s second floor window, have burdened residents for decades.
Grist / Daniel A. Anderson

Mapping these historic manufacturing sites, which Frickel and Elliott describe as “relic sites,” reveals a potential legacy of pollution. In the 92701 ZIP code, where Logan is located, only 19 industrial sites appear in the 2014 compendium. But almost 200 appear in the older directories. Neighborhoods like Logan, a historically segregated residential barrio that the city subsequently zoned as industrial in 1929, reveal exactly the problem that Frickel and Elliott discovered while researching the four cities in Sites Unseen: Minneapolis, Portland, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

“These are small areas — [like] little welder shops — so regulations do not require them to report. Frickel explained to Grist that these places don’t have records. They are small and don’t have a lot of capital, so people don’t have the money to fix problems .”

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Small businesses like this auto repair shop co-mingle with apartment complexes and single-family homes in and around Santa Ana’s Logan neighborhood. Daniel A. Anderson

In their study, Frickel and Elliott tapped manufacturing directories dating as far back as the 1950s in those four cities and discovered that more than 90 percent of sites where hazardous industry (defined as businesses that perform work known to release toxic chemicals and heavy metals) has operated over the past half-century have become essentially invisible to regulatory agencies. This is because the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory Program does not require that businesses smaller than a certain size report their emissions. Therefore, small polluters who move in and out of business quickly can avoid formal scrutiny.

Invisible industry

In major cities, relic sites are significantly more common than sites in the EPA’s Toxic Release Inventory.

Toxic Release Inventory Sites

Relic Sites

Minneapolis

New Orleans

Philadelphia

Portland

Data sources : EPA / Scott Frickel & James R. Elliot. Adapted from Sites Unseen / Russell Sage Foundation. Grist / Clayton Aldern

“TRI data aren’t enough to show the historical truth of industrial activity or the legacy contamination that is inevitably left behind when these industries go,” Frickel stated. Grist’s Santa Ana findings highlight the limitations of government data in revealing contamination.

While neighborhoods along the city’s eastside have had facilities such as a findry and lead smelter for decades, the area today is dominated by small- and medium-sized commercial and industrial businesses. As recently as 1984, massive Shell oil tanks, like the ones from Garcia’s childhood, loomed over what is now Santa Ana Boulevard near the original Santa Fe railroad depot. To make way for the Santa Ana Regional Transportation Center, a portion of this area was paved. The area where Sun Battery used to manufacture batteries is now an auto wrecking yard, a cemetery full of mangled car bones. Santa Ana Boulevard runs through the Greater Logan Area, and is home to a steady stream of suburban commuters who travel from nearby Interstate 5 into downtown. They bring with them toxic exhaust and dirty air.

A vintage photo of Shell Oil fuel storage tanks in Santa Ana’s Logan neighborhood near the original Santa Fe train depot. Photo courtesy of Mary Garcia

Each business in Logan has its own unique history: For example, the Shell Oil yard, which Orange County property records show operated from 1932 to at least 1976, included a warehouse, gasoline storage tanks, outbuildings, and a railroad connection to the Southern Pacific tracks. In 1942, a fire started by static electricity while a truck was being loaded swept through the warehouse, causing an estimated $4,000 to $5,000 in damages and endangered “scores of 50-gallon barrels of high-test aviation gasoline,” according to an article in the Santa Ana Register, now known as the Orange County Register. The story also noted that the property had seven 20,000- to 25,000-gallon stationary fuel tanks.

In the late-1940s, Sun Battery began making lead acid storage batteries (used for cars and marine storage) near the present-day train depot. According to California manufacturing directories, the company grew and employed hundreds of workers. The property parcel also increased. In the 1950s, it also went by the name of the Lippincott Lead Company, which produced lead and lead alloys. One Sanborn map of this time shows that one of the buildings was used for “battery led melting.” National Park Service documents show that George Lippincott owned another company that mined lead, silver and zinc at the Lippincott “Lead King” Mine, Death Valley. The same records show that, in the early 1950s, the company erected a blast furnace operation in Santa Ana, where lead and silver were smelted for use in storage batteries. It’s unclear when the facility ceased operations: The directories confirm it operated as late as 1972 (when it had 400 employees), but it appears to have shuttered during the following decade.

Grist / Clayton Aldern

What kind of mess the operation might have left in its wake — at the time that Sun Battery opened there were no federal regulations requiring monitoring of its emissions — has not been documented, until now. Grist sampled soil outside the gate of the former Sun Battery address in 2019. An XRF analyzer, which produces X-rays to measure the lead content of soil, found one lead level as high as 1,935 parts per million — more than six times the soil screening level for lead in industrial and commercial areas set by the state of California. RJ Lee Group Inc. is a Pennsylvania-based scientific consulting and industrial forensics analytical laboratory. The sample was found to contain high levels of both lead and no evidence of automobile leaded gasoline. However, the sample contained evidence of lead-phosphate, which is an automotive byproduct. Computer-controlled scanning electron microscope, which collects images and gives chemistry profiles of individual particles, was used to analyze the samples. It concluded that an industrial process that used lead may have been one of the possible sources.

RJLe Group also analyzed four additional samples from east side neighborhoods in which Grist discovered the highest levels of lead soil (Logan, French Park and Lacy). It confirmed that the area where the Sun Battery property was the one with the highest lead concentrations. Although the firm is still conducting an in-depth analysis, its initial findings indicate that four of five samples contained significant amounts of battery facility emissions. Other samples have different sources: A sample taken from an older home with lead paint contained lead barium. Other samples contained lead phosphate. This could have come from car exhaust or other sources.

A 1964 aerial view of the train tracks and the Santa Ana freeway in the Greater Logan area. Photograph courtesy of First American Title Insurance Company

Not much is known about the extent that Sun Battery’s operations might have polluted the surrounding soil in Logan, but an example just north of Santa Ana in Los Angeles County illustrates how, even during an era when regulations exist to monitor lead smelters, the environment around these facilities can become heavily contaminated. Researchers Jill Johnston and Andrea Hricko of the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine found that, in the decades after Exide began recycling batteries at the site in the late 1970s, public agencies failed to protect the predominantly Latino communities surrounding the smelter.

The researchers pointed out that Exide’s contamination could have reached as far as 1.7 miles from the facility, but that this was only after the community put pressure on the state Department of Toxic Substance Control. In their 2017 study, Johnston and Hricko pointed to soil data suggesting that 99 percent of properties within that area had lead concentrations that exceeded 80 parts per million, the level that the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment considers dangerous for children in residential areas.

The work of scientists from across the country has demonstrated how widespread soil lead contamination in urban centers. Mark Laidlaw, a geologist and environmental scientist, has conducted extensive studies on lead exposure in the United States that have shown that soils in older urban areas remain highly contaminated by lead due largely to the use of leaded gasoline and paint in decades past, as well as industrial sources. Multiple studies have shown seasonal spikes in children’s blood lead levels in the summer and fall — meaning the problem extends beyond common culprits like leaded paint. This is especially true in inner-city areas with decades of lead accumulation in the soils. The soil dust is then released into the atmosphere. The amount of lead that is deposited in each city’s soil will depend on its age, industrial history, and vehicle traffic. However, Laidlaw stated that these soils are still a major source for blood lead poisoning, especially for children.

A child plays in the dirt during a groundbreaking construction ceremony for Santa Ana’s Pacific Electric Park. Daniel A. Anderson

Despite overwhelming evidence, little has been done at the federal level to address this source of childhood lead exposure, said Laidlaw, a former researcher in the Centre for Environmental Sustainability and Remediation at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia, who now works as an environmental consultant. He said, “I believe it’s just awareness.” “I believe a lot has been buried by academic journals .”

The problem is that most people forget that the very ground they walk on has become an invisible sink that catches

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