It started as a community meeting. It ended as a venting session for southwest Fresno residents to share their frustration and distrust with the city over contamination at the Maxie Parks Community Center.

Among the issues raised by the participants: Why did the city delay the notification about the contamination to the community, especially those who worked in the building? Why has the city not notified people who live near the center about toxins in their neighborhood? And why is the city just coming around to a forum to seek community input?

Other concerns expressed by members of the community are related to pre-inspection of the site of the Maxie Park Community Center. Particularly, were city officials negligent in not ensuring that pre-construction studies of the site were completed? And what are the health implications of the long exposure to the toxins?

Approximately 25 community members participated in the forum hosted by Miguel Arias, president of the Fresno City Council, who said that the Dec. 1 forum was an opportunity for the public “to ask questions about the toxicology report — what does it mean in layman’s terms? These are all folks that have expertise and independence from the city [Fresno], and I want to make sure that people have access to them.”

Source of the contamination

In an Oct. 12 story published in The Bee, the source of the Parks center contamination was traced back to Imperial Laundry, a dry cleaning business that operated on the property for about 15 years in the 1950s and 1960s. It was located on what is now a grass field, south of the community center gym.

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 toxicology report found petroleum hydrocarbons and low concentrations of chlorinated solvents such as perchloroethylene (PCE) and trichloroethylene (TCE) inside the community center building as well as in the gym; concentrations of benzene were identified in soil samples taken from the grassy field, and high levels of gasoline and benzene were detected in the groundwater samples taken from a monitoring well on site.

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.

The report states that deep soils under the community center building may be affecting indoor air quality.

No ‘sense of urgency’ to notify community

“The city was notified in May of last year [2019]. We’re just getting this information. “Why? What was that?” asked Yolanda Randles, executive director of the West Fresno Family Resource Center, which, until September 2020, operated from the contaminated site. “Why was it so long in reacting to the letter that you received?”

CRAIG KOHLRUSS ckohlruss@fresnobee.com

Eric Payne, executive director of the Central Valley Urban Institute who lives two blocks away from the impacted site, said the city exhibited a “lack of urgency” in addressing the contamination in the southwest Fresno center.

“We found out about the closure of the center almost two months ago, and we’re just now having this community meeting,” Payne said. “I don’t think that there was a sense of urgency to ease people’s tension with concerns about the possible impacts on their health and their children’s health.”

Arias, who had invited Fresno officials — Michael Carbajal, city director of public utilities; Scott Dwyer, toxicologist; Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County’s interim health officer; TJ Miller, director of the Parks Department, and Jim Betts, a contract attorney for the city of Fresno — to the forum, said his office made an effort to communicate directly with all the neighbors and “walked the neighborhood” to provide fliers for the community meeting.

Neighbors can request for testing of their grounds

Robert Mitchell, retired Fresno police officer who lives in West Fresno, expressed dismay that the city has made no effort to reach residents whose homes were close to the Parks center to inform them of the implications of the contamination.

“If they want their ground to be tested, is it possible for it to be tested?” Mitchell asked.

“We have not yet received the request from the neighbors for any additional precautionary tests in that area, but that is something that we are open to, if requested from the neighbors or anybody else who may be impacted by the results of the toxicology,” Arias said.

Shawn Riggins, director of the Local Conservation Corps, whose office is right across from the Parks center said a monitoring well (to detect contamination) was installed in his workplace sometime in 2019.

“We were told it was because there was possible contamination coming from across the street,” Riggins said. First, there were regular inspections. Then he heard nothing more. He became very concerned when he saw The Bee article in October.

“We are right across from Maxie Parks and our well was installed at the same time,” Riggins said. “One of the interesting things is we haven’t seen a company come out to do any testing in about a year, until yesterday. Yesterday the company was back here on site doing testing.”

Was a required pre-construction historical search conducted?

According to Betts, the legal counsel, when the city sold the land to the EOC for development in 2005, the sale agreement clearly required an Environmental Impact Report, also referred to as phase one, which is a historical look back at the use of the property to determine if there is anything in the past use of the site to raise any concern.

“At the time that EOC was building the facility, if there was an EIR report done, what were the results? And if they did, did they dig deep enough to get the results of what we’re dealing with today?” asked Debbie Darden, chair of the Golden Westside Planning committee who also serves on the city’s District 3 Implementation Committee. “And if there wasn’t an EIR report done, what was the reason as to why there wouldn’t be?”

Betts explained that while the initial agreement for constructing the center required a “phase one analysis of the site to see if there were any historic problems” with contamination, “we’ve reviewed those files, and we have not been able to locate any particular information bearing on that contamination.”

Despite the requirement in the original contract of the sale of the property to the EOC in 2005 to do a phase one analysis, no one can find evidence that the analysis was conducted.

“As we go back through the documentation for that transaction, we do not find a phase one report. So, I just don’t have any information on that,” Betts said, but added, “we assume it’s done because it’s in the contract, but I can’t make a representation either way.”

He admitted, “If we did a phase one report today, based on regional water, we would find the Imperial Cleaners, which we believe is the source of the problem on site.”

Health concerns?

What are the potential exposures for anybody who’s been utilizing the Maxie Parks Community Center?

Scott Dwyer, toxicologist, said none, based on regulatory levels established by other agencies as well as the American Conference of Government Industrial Hygienists.

“The concentration of perc is actually more than 10,000 times lower than what Cal OSHA says is OK in workplace air,” he said. “So I feel comfortable. I would feel comfortable working in that building. I wouldn’t have any trouble if a family member works there, either. I think the building is safe.”

He said that the decision to shut down the building is only “out of an abundance of caution” and that people working five days a week, eight hours a day in the building for 25 years should have no concerns.

Randles, the family resource center leader, challenged the characterization of the center as only for commercial use. “We were in that building five days a week, working eight to 10 hours a day, and inhaling those toxins,” she said.

In October, she told The Bee, “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. All those years and all those hours? I’ve had health issues. I’m definitely concerned about my health.”

Mitchell asked about exposure and risks to vulnerable populations given the combination of the forms of chemicals found within the building.

“And the fact that it is used as a recreation center for minor children who are still developing, and how they would be impacted and affected by those chemicals?” he asked.

City of Fresno’s remediation plans

“So we [the city of Fresno] are assuming our responsibility to clean up the contamination. And we can use it again,” Arias said.

“I didn’t want to spend a lot of time tracking down whose fault it was 15 years ago,” he said. “I wanted to focus on the cleanup, since it was the city’s prior to the construction, and it’s city-owned after the construction.”

Meanwhile, the city council has decided to keep the Parks center closed until the cleanup is complete.

“We’ll continue to have the organization operating out of the Mary Ella Brown center where we’ve made some adjustments for them to operate there during the remainder of the pandemic,” he said.

During its Dec. 10 meeting, the city council approved a $126,000 agreement with Kleinfelder, who performed the toxicology tests and wrote the original report, to tackle the second phase of the contamination and established a $200,000 contingency fund for future required work.

The city should get the toxicology reports back in January or February, and it will be analyzed for the contamination remediation that needs to be undertaken.

Arias said that the Fresno City Council already authorized $500,000 of general funds with a direction to look at first using part of the $850,000 from the Brownfield cleanup funds and also actively applying for some state and federal grants to help with the cleanup.

“We are taking full responsibility to find the money and trying to secure first aid and federal resources. But the money will be available immediately upon having an approved plan from this day to clean up the site,” he said.

“You can pretty much bank on the fact that we’ll be doing some kind of vapor extraction where we pull air out of the ground soil, volatile organic compounds, vapors out of the ground soil, filter them and reduce the extent of contamination that way,” Betts said.

He added that he was optimistic that no groundwater cleanup would be required because of the low levels of contamination that have been found.

Arias committed that “anything that’s being built in district three, that there will be a phase one and phase two followed, to ensure that there’s no contamination.”

Arias insists that he wants to “do right by the people in the neighborhood,” both in the information disclosed and how the clean up is conducted.

Payne is unconvinced. “I don’t know. I didn’t hear a plan, and how they plan to communicate this issue to the public and the future of the neighborhood and the residents. Nobody talks about a website being developed. Nobody talks about future communications that will go out to the public. I didn’t hear any of that.”

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