The Maxie Parks Community Center in southwest Fresno has been evacuated and barred to the public since Sept. 3, after testing found contamination in and around the building, likely from toxic chemicals used by Imperial Cleaners, a former dry cleaning business.

City officials say the health risk is low. But, the West Fresno Family Resource Center, which operates from the Maxie Parks Community Center, built in the 2000s, will not move back into the building on California Avenue until the pollution has been removed.

“We’re keeping people off the facility until we take the next step that’s required by the water board,” Miguel Arias, president of the Fresno City Council, told The Fresno Bee. “Now we have to give them a work plan on how we’re going to mitigate and clean up the site . . . and the state board will tell us the level of mitigation that we have to do based on the analysis and the toxicologist.”

Yolanda Randles, executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center, said the center continues to provide services at the Mary Ella Brown Community Center on Annadale Avenue in southwest Fresno.

“It’s really about the community and making sure that they receive resources and support that they need, especially now,” Randles said. “We’re making it happen; we’re continuing to do our job because we have contracts; we have work that we have to fulfill, and we’re going to do that. The main thing is our community.”

What was found

Groundwater, soil and soil vapor samples taken from the property and analyzed in a lab were found to be contaminated with multiple toxic chemicals of concern at levels that may be a health or environmental risk, according to a toxicology report written for the City of Fresno PARCS Department, initially commissioned in January 2020 and published in May.

The investigation found petroleum hydrocarbons and low concentrations of chlorinated solvents are impacting the site, and scientists suspect deep soils under the community center building may be affecting indoor air quality, the report says.

  • Toxic vapors from chemicals known to increase the risk of cancer — perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) — were found inside the community center building, as well as in the gym, according to a map of testing sites in the report.
  • Concentrations of benzene, also known to increase risk of cancer, were identified in soil samples taken from the grassy field.
  • High levels of gasoline and benzene were detected in the groundwater samples taken from a monitoring well on site.

Most of the contamination was traced back to Imperial Laundry, a dry cleaning business that operated on the property in the 1950s and 1960s, for about 15 years. It was located on what is now a grass field, south of the community center gym.

All the toxic chemicals identified are widely used by dry cleaning businesses, and can last in the environment for decades because they don’t easily degrade. The highest concentrations of contaminants were discovered on the east side of the former dry cleaner, which would have been the back of the business, according to the toxicology report.

Level of exposure — a health risk?

Officials say there is no immediate threat or risk to public health, though the investigation is still underway.

The City of Fresno commissioned toxicologist Scott Dwyer to analyze the potential health hazards. He said the concentrations reported in indoor air samples collected at the center “do not pose a hazard that would prohibit occupancy of the building, assuming continued commercial use,” according to a Sept. 28 letter.

A state engineer with the Central Valley Water Quality Board agreed.

“Based on a recent indoor air quality investigation, and using Department of Toxic Substances Control guidance and screening levels for cancer risk and health hazards, no immediate threat requiring prompt corrective action has been identified. Indoor air quality continues to be investigated,” Douglas Patteson told The Fresno Bee.

But questions have been raised about how that conclusion was made.

Arias said the toxicologist’s analysis was based on the assumption that the building is for commercial purposes only.

Yolanda Randles, executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center speaks to the media following a press conference at Fresno City Hall Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

Randles challenges any characterization of the Maxie Parks as a typical commercial building.

“The Maxie Parks Center has become the hub of this community,” she said. “Kids are there every day; we have seniors there every day; we provide food distribution there; we have health insurance programs there and mental health support; we have a garden there on site.”

Randles said, “All of these programs and services are no longer available at that site.”

Arias said that because the community center operates much more than eight hours daily, the city decided to shut down the facility “until we get the mitigation plan approved by the state and until we clean up the site.”

How it was discovered

In May 2019, soil testing at nearby Valley Gas on Elm Street led to the discovery of tetrachloroethene in a groundwater monitoring well, according to a toxicology report Arias provided to The Fresno Bee.

“It was just the specific gas station in question that triggered this conversation,” Arias said. “They were doing some standard work to replace gas tanks, and they’re required to do testing.”

Fresno City Council president Miguel Arias, with Fresno Mayor Lee Brand, announces the latest news about the Maxie L. Parks Community Center contamination at a press conference Monday, Oct. 12, 2020. ERIC PAUL ZAMORA

The former Valley Gas station has been identified as a site for a potential food hub. The City has acquired funding from the US Environmental Protection Agency to support cleanup for the gas station site, among others in southwest Fresno and Chinatown.

In that process, the water board discovered potential groundwater contamination in the samples that were taken in that location, which is just north of the Maxie L. Parks Community Center, owned by the City of Fresno Parks, After School, Recreation and Community Services Department.

There are also community gardens at the site, but there isn’t a health risk there because the soil for the raised beds was brought in, Arias said.

A long timeline to action

Although the initial discovery of contaminants on the gas station site was made in May 2019, the occupants of the adjacent community center building, who spent as much as 18 hours each day running the much needed programs for the west Fresno community, were not informed until September, nearly a year and half later.

“In January of this year, there was some testing that was taking place, and we had no idea. We asked what was going on and were informed that it’s just a routine testing, so we were like, ‘OK,’” Randles said.

“And then, they came back a second time and did some more tests, and we said, ‘wait, what’s going on?’ And again, we were told that, it’s just a routine test,” she said. “And then, the next thing we know, five weeks ago, ‘Yolanda, you’ve got to vacate the building’.”

Randles said that she and her staff did not know, until five weeks ago, that there was even a problem. “If they detected something back in March, they should have said, ‘Hey, there might be something going on in the building, get out’.”

But, Randles said, the communication has gotten better since the Fresno City Council president became involved. “I’ve been talking with him (Arias) on a weekly basis, and he has been at the forefront of making sure we know what’s going on.”

Health risks?

“Why didn’t they test the soil before they built the center” several years ago?” Randles asked. She is worried about the long-term effects of the exposure to the contaminants in the building where she and her staff have worked for years.

“I do have staff that have experienced some of the health issues that are associated with that toxin, so I am very concerned,” she said.

“We’ve been in that building well over five years. And you know, we’re not a regular community-based organization; we’re sometimes in that facility for 18 hours straight and right there on the weekend and inhaling that toxin,” Randles said. “All those years and all those hours? I’ve had health issues. I’m definitely concerned about my health.”

The staff of the Maxie Parks Center continued their work even with the COVID-19 lockdown order. “We are essential workers. The contracts that we have with the county require that we were, and we told the city,” Randles said. “They said, ‘so long as that building is closed and there is no public access.’ So, once the shelter-in-place was initiated, we didn’t allow the public inside. We never even let people come in to use the bathroom.”

West Fresno Family Resource Center operations

The center continues to operate from the Mary Ella Brown Center on Annadale Avenue. Randles said space is limited at the Mary Ella Brown Center on Annadale Avenue but that she and her staff are determined to make it work.

“We are all trying to maintain social distancing, wearing masks and doing what we can. I have some staff working from home, spread out, here at the Mary Ella Brown Center,” she said, adding that they continue to run all their programs from the makeshift site.

There are inconveniences. The Mary Ella Brown Center building is older, so are the bathrooms and other structures.

City Councilmember Miguel Arias told The Fresno Bee on Wednesday he intends to request $500,000 from the city council to pay for relocation costs for the community center, initial clean-up andtesting nearby residents’ homes, if it is requested.

The city also has $800,000 in revolving loan funds from the US Environmental Protection Agency to support brownfields cleanup; it is unclear whether these funds will be available for this site.

Is the drinking water safe?

A representative for the State Water Board, Central Valley Region, stated that an ongoing investigation into potential groundwater contamination as a result of contaminants related to the dry cleaning facility are scheduled to be completed by the end of the year. At that point, the State Water Board will make recommendations as to whether additional remediation or assessment is necessary.

“The City of Fresno’s water supply – regardless of what part of town you live in – is clean, safe and reliable,” said Mike Carbajal, the public utilities director for the City of Fresno.

There are three city groundwater wells within a half-mile of the community center, all of which are regularly monitored by the City’s Public Utilities Department and regulated by the State Water Board’s Division of Drinking Water.

According to Carbajal, “the Department of Public Utilities continuously monitors and tests drinking water, and Fresno’s water always meets or exceeds every state and federal requirement that safeguards public health.”

Carbajal said that if any of the city’s wells are found to be contaminated, they are removed from service immediately.

Remediation timeline

“In January, February of next year, we anticipate getting approval and clarity from the state on what level of mitigation, and this will lead into what we’re doing next,” Arias said, explaining the two types of mitigation that could be done for any type of toxins that were found there. One is removal of the dirt and replacing it with a cleaner one.

He explained that there could also be an installation of filters in the air conditioning system and that the state may require the city to study whether the contamination has spread to the adjacent properties or to the groundwater in that area.

“All that will take place over the next few months.,” Arias said. “We’ll dive into it if it has spread, and do the kind of mitigation we have to do for the site.”

Saying he is encouraged by the toxicologist’s report that there’s no spread into the residential neighborhoods, Arias still insists on making it public, so everybody’s well aware of it, including “those who visit the site and those who live near the site.”

He will hold a community meeting with the actual experts to explain “what level of contamination has occurred, and whether you should be concerned about health conditions.”

He will request that the city begins to fund the cleanup of the site, and include any testing that the neighbors would like to conduct to give them reassurances of their own properties. Those requests will be part of a mitigation plan that he submits to the city which he wants approved during the budget deliberation process, starting this week.

Community Concerns

Several members of the Southwest Fresno community who attended a Monday press conference by Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias and Mayor Lee Brand, expressed concern about the contamination and its impact on the community.

“The center was used by our community for activities, meetings, etc, so its closure is a true disappointment, an extreme disappointment,” Bob Mitchell, resident of west Fresno, said. “However, our district representative acted in a manner that shows concern for the safety of our community, for those who utilize the facility, including the staff.”

Maxie Parks, 1976 Olympic gold medalist said the community should give the City of Fresno a chance to correct the problem. “The community should at least give the city an opportunity to show that they are trying to do everything they can to take care of the center, and save the location for our community youth,” Parks, the chairman of the board of the West Fresno Resource Center, said. “That gymnasium is only one in our entire community.”

Why was the public not informed sooner?” asked Eric Payne, west Fresno community member and member of the board of trustees of the State Center Community College District. “Recognizing that this is a public health crisis, there are a number of families and children in a neighborhood that are impacted by this environmental inequity, there needed to be a sense of urgency, and we did not see that from the city manager’s office.”

Mayor Lee Brand echoed the concern for the West Fresno community and vowed that his administration would do whatever needs to be done to restore the center. “We know how important the center is to its residents and the families of West Fresno,” Brand said. “We want to ensure that they continue to take full advantage of the facilities and the program that we offer without being concerned about their health.

In the meantime, some — like environmental justice advocate Dr. Venise Curry — have a lot of questions: “Who knew about this contamination? When did they find out? What was shared with the community, and in what timeframe?”

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