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Midway Village Housing Project: A Struggle for Environmental Justice

by: Melissa McMillan

Table of Contents



Key Actors





UofM Environmental Justice Homepage

One cannot define any single problem faced by the Residents of Midway Village without encountering a barrage of other problems along with it. First and foremost, the people who reside in the Midway Village Project Housing complex in Daly City, California, have an environmental justice problem. Environmental justice is defined as “those cultural norms and values, rules, regulations, behaviors, policies, and decisions to support sustainable communities where people can interact with confidence that their environment is safe, nurturing, and productive (Bryant, 2000). The residents of Midway village do not have confidence that their environment is safe. In fact, they have just the opposite. They are plagued with diseases and symptoms such as rashes, tumors, breathing troubles, bloody noses, and the latest: genetic defects. They claim that the reason that they suffer from these problems is due to the toxic soil upon which the housing complex was built. They also live only a few blocks away from the site from which the soil was taken: an old Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) Plant. A study published in 1989 by the United Church of Christ titled “Toxic Waste and Race in the United States,” found a pattern in which minority communities were often more likely to be located near a toxic waste or hazardous facility. Midway Village is a low-income project-housing complex composed mostly of African Americans, Latinos, and a few Asian Americans.

The soil from the old PG&E plant contains polunuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PNAs or PAHs). PNAs are non-volatile organic compounds that are produced by a number of industries here in the U.S. as a byproduct of burning and manufacturing coal. The U.S. EPA claims that many superfund sites, like the PG&E Martin Station in Daly City, contain PNAs (EPA RAP, 2000). As pure chemicals, PNAs exist as colorless, white, or pale green solids. They can be either in the air, attached to dust particles, or in soil or sediments as solids. In the home, PNAs can occur in tobacco smoke, smoke from home heating of wood, creosote treated wood products, cereals, grains, flour, bread, vegetables, fruits, meat, processed or picked foods, and beverages. However, the greatest risk of exposure for most people is at work in or around coal-tar production plants, coking plants, asphalt plants, coal-gassification sites, coal-tarring incinerators, and others (Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, 2000).

Byproducts of the PG&E Martin Service center were lampblack (a finely-powdered carbon coal) and tars. Both “lampblack and tars contain PAHs, and volatile organic hydrocarbons (VOCs)(California Environmental Protection Agency; Department of Toxic Substances Control, 2000).

For over 10 years, these residents have been fighting with dozens of officials and company managers to take care of this problem. However, they are a low-income minority community that is having trouble making its voice heard. Exacerbating their struggle, they have recently also had to fight against yet another big polluting industry pushing to locate in their neighborhood, on the old PG&E site.

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From 1906 to 1913, PG&E’s gas manufacturing plant in Daly City left behind tar-like residues that contain potentially hazardous chemicals. In 1944, the Pentagon built the Midway Village Housing Complex next to the site of the old abandoned gas plant of which it took control during World War II. At that time, Midway Village was used for military housing of soldiers. The government contractors who built the housing used soil and gas plant residues to fill in the marshland where the complex now stands. In 1955, the U.S. Federal Government turned the property and the housing complex over to San Mateo County to be used for public housing and schools. Using Federal Aid, in 1976 the San Mateo Housing Authority rebuilt the Midway Village complex without conducting any soil tests.

In 1980, PG&E discovered contaminated soil at the Martin Service Center, and hauled some of it away to be treated and disposed of properly. In 1984, still dealing with the waste on site, the Martin Service Station was declared a Superfund site. Superfund is a rotating government fund that disburses aid for the clean up of toxic waste and hazardous material sites when the land becomes abandoned, or when a company goes bankrupt and cannot afford the cleanup. Superfund is a popular term for CERCLA, or the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act. The program was constructed to “secure prompt environmental cleanups of releases of hazardous substances into the environment” (Plater, J.B., et al. 1998). The people who now reside in Midway Village have yet to see that “prompt” cleanup.

In 1989 and 1990, PG&E tests revealed that the soils around the housing units of Midway Village were indeed contaminated. In June of 1990, PG&E informed San Mateo County supervisors and health and environmental officials. It was not until September of 1990 that the residents of Midway Village gained knowledge of the contamination. The next month the county hired independent contractors to remove some more of the soil, and “cap the other areas with concrete patios” (The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2000). Unsatisfied with this remediation plan, 55 residents filed suit in a state court against San Mateo County, the county Housing Authority, and PG&E in July of 1991.

In rebuttal to this lawsuit, Cal-EPA ordered the federal government, San Mateo County, and PG&E to come up with a comprehensive plant to clean Midway Village. As their questions and demands remained unanswered, and plans for clean-up were not materialized, 250 more residents of Midway Village filed a $125 million class-action lawsuit against the federal government. In July of 1993, the government granted $1.8 million to the county to “cap” more soil. The following year, a federal judge dismissed the $125 million lawsuit, claiming that the residents had no hard evidence that their illnesses and symptoms were at all related to the area they lived in or the contamination by which they claimed to be surrounded. In August 1997, yet another suit was dismissed by a San Mateo County Superior Court judge (The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2000).

In this decade old battle, still new problems are arising for the people of Midway Village. The latest discovery shows that not only do these residents suffer from the physical symptoms mentioned above, but now they are showing serious signs of genetic abnormalities. In June 1999, a study done by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry released data showing these high levels of abnormalities. A high number of chromosome aberrations were detected in 32 of 34 residents ages 18 and under. Of the adults studied, 19 out of 24 showed significant abnormalities in their DNA. Medical studies done have “shown that such genetic defects can make people more prone to cancer and other illnesses” (The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2000). However, scientists and researchers are having difficulty in linking these genetic defects to the contamination of the soil around Midway Village.

Another battle started this summer for the Midway residents, as PG&E began to haul dirt off the Martin Service Station site. Residents were not informed that this was taking place, and they feared the health implications of the process. The project was to have 40 trucks filled with contaminated dirt leave the PG&E yard each day for two weeks. They planned to remove the dirt to complete a drainage project that spans the width of the PG&E property. The residents feared that as the dirt was hauled up and out, it would become airborne and drift into their homes and yards (San Francisco Chronicle, Jan 19, 2000).

Another battle was just won by Midway Village residents. In late October 2000, a San Jose independent power company proposed to put two temporary power plants in San Mateo County, one on the old PG&E Martin Service Station. The residents were outraged about PG&E offering to lease the land to the Calpine Corporation. They have been waging battles with PG&E over toxic cleanup for a decade and felt that another polluting plant would be a step backward in their fight for justice. In mid-November, 2000, as the result of strong opposition from Midway Village community groups and Greenaction, Calpine informed the California Energy Commission that they were withdrawing their permit application. Residents were never even formally informed of the proposed permit or the Calpine facility that was to be sited in their neighborhood. They were informed by an outside environmental justice group: Greenaction.

Finally, in June and July of this year, soil samples were taken by the Cal-EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control and an outside analysis company. The results were to be made available by September 2000 to the Midway residents. The DTSC now claims that the EPA has the results and is doing a quality analysis on them and that they will be available in another three months (February, 2001). “This shows more of the distrust that we have for these agencies, they put us through this every time” (Bishop, 12/1/00). Now they have some evidence that the samples are “hot,” and “that is why [the residents] feel the results are taking so long, it’s just another stall tactic” (Bishop, 12/1/00).

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Key Actors

As this problem goes on, there become more and more key actors in the Midway Village environmental justice case. One of the most active participants in the process has been the Midway Residents for Environmental Justice. The leader of the group, Lula Bishop, has been an active voice in her community from the beginning, and runs the group out of her home. They stay very involved in every step of the process and have accomplished a great deal throughout this campaign.

The Midway Residents are mobilized by a group called Greenaction for Environmental Justice. Greenaction is a new non-profit organization launched by California Communities Against Toxics and former staff from Greenpeace. In the short career of this organization, they have shown that they are already a leader in the fight for environmental justice in the United States. The vision statement of Greenaction is as follows:

•We will confront corporate polluters and their friends in government

•We will expose the cancer industry that profits from the production, use and disposal of chemicals that cause cancer and other ill health effects.

•We will oppose environmental racism and injustice

We will work for true pollution prevention and real public participation in government and corporate decision-making on issues which impact our health and environment.

•We will promote solutions consistent with environmental, social, and economic


•We will take bold action for health and environmental justice

(Greenaction;, 2000)

Pacific Gas and Electric Company is the next key actor in this dispute. It was PG&E who initially polluted the land, and did not disclose this information to the public until 10 years after the fact. PG&E is also still in control of the land on which the Martin Service Station is located. They have been active in the soil removal process and have been debating letting Calpine lease the land from them to put a polluting power plant on.

Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is also a key actor. The residents of Midway Village feel that it is HUD’s responsibility to relocate them to a safer environment. HUD considered this option and came up with a plan to put the Midway residents at the top of the Section 8 voucher list. Section 8 vouchers are government subsidized vouchers that allow low-income people and families to afford housing that is not in low-income neighborhoods. The problem with this system is that there is already a 10,000-person waiting list for these vouchers, because once people get them, it is not a guarantee that they will be able to find a place to live. “Why would anyone want to sell or lease to these people when they can sell or lease to a bunch of dot com yuppies?” says Bradley Angel of Greenaction (Bradley Angel, 12/1/00). Just because they can afford it does not mean that they are welcome in these neighborhoods.

In addition, people with section 8 vouchers still need to come up with a first and last months rent or a security deposit. This can be prohibitive for many people who cannot afford to save up that money. Therefore, HUD passed off the task to the San Mateo County Housing Authority, who has yet to take steps in relocating the residents. Again, this is another example of how “this community has been abandoned by politicians and government agencies that practice environmental racism (Bradley Angel, 12/1/00).” Lula Bishop simply states that “we want the people who represent our city to be advocates for us (Lula Bishop, 12/1/00).”

The final important player in this case is the California Environmental Protection Agency (Cal-EPA). The EPA has seemed almost non-partial to this case. They are involved some of the time, but often pass duties and studies off to other groups. The lawsuits that have been filed against them by the residents have been thrown out of court due to lack of evidence. The EPA has claimed that the “work [they’ve] done out there has not indicated that residents need to be located. [They] have not found any evidence to indicate that anyone’s health has been impacted in any way (The San Francisco Chronicle, January 19,2000).” Yet at the same time, the EPA continues to order more tests and complete more analyses of the area. They “urge” the other regulators to retest the project as well.

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There are approximately 649,623 people living in San Mateo County (U.S. Census, 1990). Of those people, 467,853 are white, 34,580 are African American, 113,090 are Hispanic, and 109,309 are Asian or Pacific Islander. The majority of Midway residents are African American, but there are also a few Latino and Asian American's living there as well. It is also a low-income neighborhood because it is a government-funded housing project.

Midway Village is a housing complex located in Daly City, in San Mateo County, California. It is located between the Cow Palace and Highway 101, adjacent to the Pacific Gas and Electric Company site. It is owned and operated by the San Mateo County Housing Authority. The 150 units in the project are occupied by 1,200 people. The Midway Village Complex is located adjacent to Bayshore Park, which provides open space and recreation for the families who live there. There is also an adjacent daycare center and elementary schools. Bayshore Park is a host to organized outdoor sports activities for children in the area. Unfortunately, the park, too, is contaminated with toxics from the Martin Service Station.

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Greenaction and the Midway Residents for Environmental Justice have employed a number of strategies to get their message across to those in charge. Both are grassroots organizations, and they have employed their tactics as such. They have become experts at protesting and demonstrating in front of important places such as the Martin Service Station and courthouses where their cases are being heard. Many residents have laid down in the path of trucks in desperate attempt to be seen and heard. They do post-card signing and flyering to get their message to all those who will listen. They have written letters to government officials and representatives for their community and placed telephone calls to their offices. Many of the Midway Residents for Environmental Justice have spent their time going door to door to document ailments and illnesses of residents. The residents are very passionate about their cause and have made a name for themselves by being so active and involved in their fate and future. The people of Greenaction have helped to serve as a type of catalyst and a resource for the Midway residents. They provide support and manpower, and understand how grassroots organizing works.

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The most obvious solution to the problem in Daly City would be to relocate the citizens of Midway Village. The concept of section 8 housing vouchers was a step in the right direction, but was not an all inclusive solution for the people of Midway Village. A solution would be permanent relocation that requires no extra costs for the residents. The sources of the problem should combine and pool resources to help these families get out of Midway Village. “We just want adequate compensation,” says Lula Bishop (telephone interview, 12/1/00). Over the past 10 years, many solutions have been proposed to the problem, but all have been open ended and non-specific.

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Bradley Angel of Greenaction has a list of three goals or recommendations for the Midway Village Housing Complex. They are as follows:

  1. The residents of Midway Village should be permanently relocated, immediately.

  2. The residents of Midway Village should have lifetime health care coverage. Pacific Gas and Electric should pay for this health care because of the chemicals that they have left in and around Midway Village.

  3. The residents of Midway Village should receive just compensation. They should be fairly and justly reimbursed both emotionally and monetarily for costs that they have incurred from living in Midway Village.

(Bradley Angel, phone interview, 12/1/00)

After talking to Lula Bishop of Midway Residents for Environmental Justice, I realized that her goals and recommendations were exactly the same, since they have been working so closely with Greenaction over the past few years. Lula also said that she would like to see more pressure put on the EPA and DTSC to respond to the needs and wants of the people (Lula Bishop, telephone interview, 12/1/00).

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Important links:

Greenaction for Environmental Justice

Midway Village Homepage

The United States Census Bureau
The United States Environmental Protection Agency

The California Environmental Protection Agency

The California Department of Toxic Substances Control

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