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Around Town: The real dirt on the Devil's Gate cleanup

December 11, 2013|By Anita S. Brenner
  • Crews removed about 5,000 cubic yards of dirt from the base of Devil's Gate Dam at Hahamongna Watershed Park in Pasadena on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The Los Angeles County Department of Public Works released a draft environmental impact report in October 2013 that outlined five possible options for removing large amounts of sediment that built up in the basin after the 2009 Station fire and the storms that followed.
Crews removed about 5,000 cubic yards of dirt from the… (Raul Roa / Staff…)

Last week, Tiffany Kelly reported on community concerns about a proposed five-year-long project to remove debris and mud above Devil’s Gate Dam.

Kelly reported that neighbors have said that the project “could be environmentally destructive and affect the health of a neighborhood that includes several schools.”

The real concern is not the traffic, not the dirt and not some imaginary worry about “the environment.” The elephant in the room is cancer.

As a La Cañadan, I adore JPL. I’m in favor of space exploration. I love technology. I am in favor of the future. But we must remember that in 1997, JPL was sued by neighbors who alleged that “the lab's past chemical disposal practices caused cancer in dozens of local residents.” (Riccardi, “JPL's Toxic Waste Caused Cancer, Suit Says” Los Angeles Times, Sept. 23, 1997.) Many of the plaintiffs (or their deceased relatives) had been students at St. Bede School. Others lived in neighborhoods served by a specific water company.


JPL has been a Superfund cleanup site since 1992 as result of “former site activities, chemicals, primarily volatile organic compounds (VOC) and perchlorate (a component of solid rocket fuel), used at JPL [that] have been released to soil and groundwater.” (Report, “Public Health Assessment Jet Propulsion Laboratory (NASA) Pasadena, Los Angeles County, California.”)

In defending the St. Bede case, JPL argued that there was no proof of causation. The issue of causation, both in law and in science, is subject to presumptions. How do you prove that one case of cancer is caused by the groundwater contamination when JPL is lower in elevation? How do you prove that the contaminants flowed upward?

The plaintiffs responded that when it rained, the water level rose and the groundwater above JPL was polluted by cancer-causing contaminants. La Cañadans drank that tap water. They bathed in it. What else could explain unusual clusters of rare cancers on the same street?

The St. Bede case quietly settled. It settled with a confidentiality agreement.

Meanwhile, over in Altadena, the Lincoln Avenue Water Company and some of their customers made the same claim, that there were cancer clusters in their neighborhoods. Once again, the argument was about causation: whether the VOCs stayed down in the arroyo near JPL or, when it rained, flowed up to a higher elevation and out to the neighborhoods.

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