From The Los Angeles Wave:

While attorneys fight in the courtroom against the County of Los Angeles and several other entities, many residents who lived in and around the shuttered Ujima Village complex are left to wonder whether their health problems are the result of toxic contamination.

Formerly the Athens Tank Farm between the 1920s and 1960s, the site was acquired from ExxonMobil and transformed into an apartment housing complex in 1972, with financing from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). The site was later sold by HUD to the Los Angeles County Housing Authority and the Community Development Commissioners (the five sitting Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors at the time) for $1.

In 2004, after poor workmanship of the original construction led to deterioration of the units, the Housing Authority tried to solicit developers to purchase, rehabilitate and operate the site; but the selected developer “later backed out of the proposed transaction, identifying gasoline and crude oil in the soil, soil gas and groundwater below Ujima Village,” said a county document on the chronology of village, which was named after the Swahili word for “collective work and responsibility.”

Willie Mitchell, son of Cordia Mitchell, lived on and off at the village with his mother. He last resided there was the year before the county began removing residents from the area.

In 2007, 64-year-old Cordia died following a battle with leukemia. “The doctor told her she had to have picked up from somewhere or that she was born with it,” Mitchell, 46, said. “She stayed at home a lot, she didn’t really work, she did babysitting. … They said she had to be working somewhere like an oil refinery or somewhere there are a lot of chemicals. Leukemia is not in the family at all, neither side.”

Prior to his mother’s passing, “I noticed that a lot of people over there were dying. I just knew something was wrong,” Mitchell added. “I would leave and then come back home and it was a ghost town over there. They were moving people out. We didn’t understand what happened to her when she got sick and how this came about. I noticed people who lived there after so many … years, they would start getting sick. My mom lived there for over 12 years, she was diagnosed in 2005.”

Mitchell said he knows of neighborhood children who have developed irritable skin rashes, pneumonia, bronchitis and other respiratory problems, while elderly residents reported suffering from various forms of cancer.

There was also talk of birth defects. According to Mitchell, he grew up with two girls who were born with one kidney. “It’s not a coincidence, there is something really wrong going on over there that they are trying to cover up for whatever reason,” he contends. “We are tying to find answers.”

A non-smoker, Mitchell said he has bronchitis and experiences severe migraines and itching. Nervousness, he said, may be due to lingering grief over his mother’s death.

“Sometimes it feels like I’m going to scratch my skin off,” he said, “and it takes a good 10 to 15 minutes before I can even soothe it.”

Don Brown, 57, lived at Ujima for approximately five years. He is currently undergoing chemotherapy for stage four cancer of the liver, which has spread to his intestines.

“When I first realized that something wasn’t right was when my neighbor caught pneumonia — a little boy who was about five caught pneumonia. I caught pneumonia twice,” he said. “My neighbor who was on the back side of my apartment, he caught pneumonia and he died. His neighbor, she caught pneumonia. And then a lot of the kids started having respiratory problems.

“We would get information from the mailbox,” he added. “You would go and get the mail and hear Miss So-and-So passed or so-and-so is real sick. You have over 29 people who have died, you have a lot of people like myself who have cancer and a lot of the kids who lived there have respiratory problems. There are a number of women in there who have had miscarriages. There is a real problem here.”

Brown said he learned of his cancer during a routine check-up. The doctor, he said, was astonished by what she found. “For my age and the health that I am, the cancer is rare and she hadn’t seen it before, and where it was … in the backside of my liver. She said it was real unusual.”

At several community outreach meetings, Brown said he and other residents were never warned about the possible health risks that could be associated with the toxic remnants left behind by Exxon Mobil after the former tank farm was acquired by HUD.

When residents began to question county officials about contamination on the site and possible health risks, “it was hushed,” Brown said. “They said there was nothing around us — yet 20 feet from my door, they were drilling holes. You have people dying. No one came over to Ujima Village to rescue us, they just had us there with a bunch of lies. They left us there to fend for ourselves.”

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