Highland Park community members raise concerns about soil contamination in York Park

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Entrance to York Park, a community park on York Boulevard, in Los Angeles, CA. Sept. 28, 2020. Dominic Massimino/The Occidental.

Today the corner of York Boulevard and N Avenue 50 is a playground, but in the 1980s, it was a Shell-owned gas station, according to a document written by the Sustainability Committee of Highland Park Neighborhood Council (HPNC). Vacated after gasoline spills in the 1980s and 90s, the vacant lot later became York Park. Recently, Highland Park residents have raised concerns about the safety of the soil at the park. Built in 2015, the park was the site of two separate gasoline spills in 1981 and 1992. It is estimated that the first spill was caused by a broken fuel line that produced approximately 800 gallons of spilled gasoline. While the the site is now deemed safe for reopening according to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board, some community members worry there may be traces of gasoline still in the soil.

Mando Medina, Highland Park resident and one of the owners of the Instagram account @highland_park_nela, said he wants new community members to know about the history of the lot the park is built on.

“If you’re new here and you’re taking your kids to that park, you need to know that it was actually vacated for 15–20 years because it was so contaminated the city stated you can’t build on that site,” Medina said.

According to the HPNC’s document, the original spill in 1981 caused harmful levels of fuel in the soil, with a total recoverable petroleum hydrocarbons(TRPH) concentration 100 times higher than recommended levels in the soil and gas/diesel levels at 31 times the reported safe amount. After the 1992 spill, groundwater samples showed TRPH levels more than 200 times over the recommendation for residential areas, and an oil concentration 600 times what is deemed safe for human beings. TRPH and total petroleum hydrocarbons(TPH) are umbrella terms for a mixture of chemicals made up of hydrogen and carbon present in crude oil and petroleum. According to a profile by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), human exposure to TPH can affect the human central nervous system, and could potentially affect the blood, immune system, liver, spleen, kidneys, lungs and, for pregnant people, developing fetuses. The same profile stated that the DHHS determined that benzene, another chemical present in the soil after the 1992 spill, causes cancer in humans and long-term exposure to high levels of benzene in the air can cause leukemia. All information and findings about the history of contamination on the York Park lot can be found in documents collected by the HPNC Sustainability Committee. Today, after decades of remediation and testing, the site now meets the standard for reopening, according to the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board.

In a neighborhood council meeting Oct. 7, Emily Spokes, head of the HPNC Sustainability committee, said the council has gone as far as they can go in their push to get additional soil testing for the site, and that she was convinced of the park’s relative safety in a presentation with the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“This is a very difficult decision for me personally because I feel very strongly that we do deserve an environmental assessment,” Spokes said. “The LA Regional Water Quality Control Board presented like 20 or 30 years of evidence that they have been monitoring this site for years and years and years. They say it meets the state Low-Threat Closure Policy.

In order for a site to meet the standards for a Low-Threat Closure Policy(LTCP), it must not pose a threat to nearby groundwater and must be free of pollutants that endanger human beings in the area. As of tests conducted in 2011, all gas and diesel levels, as well as TPH and benzene levels, remain undetectable, according to reports conducted by Advanced Geoengineering Inc.

After the spill in 1992, efforts to ensure the lot’s safety began in 1998, in which 316 gallons of hazardous liquids were removed from the land, according to documents gathered by the HPNC Sustainability Committee. Since then, Advanced Geoengineering Inc., now dissolved, removed 4,710 tons of soil between 2001 and 2009, and began quarterly groundwater reviews for any contamination during that same time period. After the site was cleared of any soil or water pollutants, York Park was built in 2014 as a part of the York Vision Plan under former LA District 14 Councilmember José Huizar, who is now under federal indictment for corruption charges unrelated to the construction of York Park.

Esther Kim, Eagle Rock native and current Highland Park resident, said the park is important to the community as both a landmark and a meeting spot. According to Kim, the rumors about the park do not bother her, and she likes to bring her friends from outside of the neighborhood, as well as her child, to the park.

“The locals call it poison park … but it’s nice to have a meeting spot. It feels like a town square, unofficially,” Kim said. “So, I don’t know, I’m a big fan of the poison park myself.”

Some Highland Park residents still feel that additional testing is necessary. Spokes and Medina said the HPNC conducted its own and found non-threatening levels of diesel in the top layers of the soil. Medina said this low level of diesel in basic testing should warrant deeper drilling into the soil to confirm that there is no contamination. According to Spokes, more testing could cost between $10,000 and $20,000. Spokes said that she would prefer another test, but that she believes the LA Regional Water Quality Control Board has been thorough in its testing and remediation efforts. According to Spokes, the Sustainability Committee should begin focusing their attention elsewhere.

“The fact that we can detect anything in the dirt at all is enough cause to sort of be suspicious,” Spokes said. “[However] I would like to propose that we have taken this as far as we think we can take it without the stewardship of an environmental attorney, or someone who knows how to get it all the way through.”

Pete Brown, communications director for Council District 14 Councilmember Kevin de León, said all tests have shown that any contamination in York Park falls below levels that warrant mitigation, and that the testing on the site should speak for itself. According to Brown, a new soil test is not necessary at this time.

“The Councilmember stands behind the fact that all of our parks should be safe and protected, and the only way to do that is by testing soil, and we base the safety of all properties on that, all public lands,” Brown said. “If anything warrants, based on testing, remediation, then we certainly will do that.”