• A sign advertising a meeting next to a gate

      Proposed site of The Villages (Photo – Melissa Michelson)

      The Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board (the Water Board) gave the environmental consultant to the developers of “The Villages” permission to collect soil, soil vapor and indoor air samples at 34 sites within the 37-acre property, and four soil vapor samples across the street on Date Avenue.

      By Melissa Michelson

      Residents, however, remain skeptical of the process.

      “The Villages” developer, Elite-TRC (The Ratkovich Company), is seeking Alhambra City Council approval to build 81 affordable housing rental units and 694 market-rate units for sale and for rent at Mission and Fremont. On November 2, 2020, their application was overwhelmingly rejected by the City’s Planning Commission in a 7-3 vote, after five months, nine meetings and over 300 public comments.

      Since January 11, 2021, when “The Villages” first appeared on the City Council agenda, councilmembers have voiced concerns about possible contamination as well as a lack of affordable housing, hyperbolic walkability and unmitigable traffic as a result of the project. The site, located in Alhambra’s industrial district and on designated Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund land, historically operated as an aviation manufacturing plant for CF Braun.

      In 2017, the Water Board determined the 11 soil samples that environmental consultants Equipoise Corporation (“Equipoise”) obtained yielded no further requirements (NFR), just as they had determined with soil samples taken in 2013 at the southeastern corner of the property (2215 West Mission Road).

      At the July 12, 2021 City Council meeting, representatives of the Water Board assured the City Council that their previous guidance regarding vapor mitigation was still valid, and there was no need to conduct more testing. Even though the public and the City Council expressed strong concern about the environmental safety of the site, Elite-TRC (the Developer) expressed no willingness in the Developer’s Agreement to conduct testing. In fact, should the property be contaminated, the Developer agreed to indemnify the City from liability only as to any “Hazardous Substance brought onto or present, now or in the future, on Lot 8;” Lot 8 is a small area within the 37-acre plot of land.

      In a surprise move a day before the City Council’s August 10 meeting, the Developer informed the Council’s negotiating sub-committee that further contamination testing would indeed be conducted.  In a 3-2 vote, the Council put off the meeting and public comment until September 30 so that the Developer’s new contamination sampling would be completed and analyzed. September 30 will be the 13th City Council meeting where “The Villages” will be discussed.

      The Developer has again chosen Equipoise to do the samplings. Since 2005, Equipoise Corporation will have conducted testing on this site three times.  Its latest report, “Post Closure Vapor Intrusion Assessment Work Plan” was submitted for approval to the Water Board on August 25 and approved on September 3. The public will not have had an opportunity to comment on the Work Plan before it is completed.

      In 2005, the Water Board required a Soil Vapor Survey for the seven areas of 1000 S. Fremont, including the sites for a former Sump/Clarifier and Gas Fractionation/Distillation Unit, multiple incinerator locations, a 61,500-gallon diesel tank and two 20,000-gallon solvent tanks operated by Union Oil Company in the 1930s. Regarding the two solvent tanks, because “this address no longer is associated with any existing building or facility,” and because Union Oil Company (UNOCAL) was still a viable entity, it was requested that the Water Board contact UNOCAL to investigate their former operations.   Equipoise’s 2021 Work Plan does not state whether or not the Water Board ever did so.

      A question of trust: “Why now?

      Ari G. Arambuala, a 17-year resident of Alhambra, has been closely following The Villages. She questions why the City should trust Equipoise and the Water Board with the results, why they are re-doing tests and why these tests hadn’t been done before. Arambuala reasons that, “It seems everyone has an interest in the results: as expected, the Developer hired the same company, Equipoise, that gave them a go-ahead previously because it wants the green light from the City; the Water Board, which had previously waived further testing, wants to save face and have its past approvals stand.”

      Arambuala also questions the chosen sample sites.

      Only two existing buildings close to the southeastern corner of the property have been chosen for indoor air samples. According to Plate 9 Proposed Sample Locations, soil vapor probing will be done in some locations where historically there used to be woodworking, a research laboratory and a machine shop, but not where there were foundries, paint spray booths and mixing areas.

      Arambuala contends the justification for the 38 planned sampling locations is not systematic and that sampling should be done based on historical uses and then certain contaminants could be systematically discounted if not present in each historical location.  “My lay person review of the proposed testing plan prompted questions about “random” site selections. If the past use of the property is known, it would make sense to test locations for each past operational structure or to test sites that have the highest risk for contaminants such as the lead pipe welding and the giant x-ray machine sites.”

      Ranajit Sahu, City of Alhambra Planning Commissioner, questions the Water Board’s oversight and the study’s transparency:  “The fact is that the [Water Board’s] 2017 decision determining that the site was “clean” was clearly flawed.  This is a matter of public record going back to when this matter was in front of the Planning Commission over a year ago. It’s unfortunate that the landowner and the Water Board are only now attempting to fix their obviously deficient, prior decisions regarding contamination. It is a missed opportunity, however, because no public input was sought nor provided for the new workplan.  Without public input, transparency, and oversight of the field sampling, the results of the new sampling by the developer and its use of the data in any revised risk assessment are open to question.”

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      1. Mark Nisall says:

        The Fox is going to investigate the Hen house. Yeah, good luck with that.

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