East San Jose residents demand environmental justice
Councilmember Peter Ortiz speaks at a press conference about contamination in Alum Rock. Photo by Annalise Freimarck

    Contamination clean-up efforts have been slow going at an abandoned East San Jose building that was the site of a large fuel spill in 2015. Residents and leaders gathered at the site Friday demanding the city expedite the process amid growing air quality threats.

    Nearly a dozen community members, including Councilmember Peter Ortiz, said the contamination situation has grown dire and that similar issues affecting the east side tend to go neglected by city leaders. Crews started cleaning up the site a few months ago, but Ortiz said it’s still not moving fast enough.

    “If this was any other side of town, this wouldn’t have been possible to be here for eight months, to be here for close to a year if this was an affluent community,” he told San José Spotlight.

    The problem began when a large spill at the site, SC Fuels, contaminated soil and groundwater in 2015. The spill led to the air becoming hazardous to breathe when disturbances like construction projects or particularly windy days upturn the soil, according to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services. The site is near small businesses, a retirement community, childcare facilities and thousands of homes on Alum Rock Road. In 2016, SC Fuels was fined $75,000 in penalties by the Environmental Protection Agency for failing to safely manage dozens of fuel tanks .

    Ortiz, who represents East San Jose, said the area has experienced a “history of neglect.” He first toured SC Fuels when he was elected, and after three months of city inaction he’s demanding the city manager address the problem. But as more time goes by he has grown increasingly impatient.

    Veronica Amador, Alum rock resident and parent, calls for environmental justice at a press conference about contamination in Alum Rock. Photo by Annalise Freimarck

    Veronica Amador has lived in Alum Rock with her three children for a decade about a block away from the site. She wasn’t aware of the contamination until recently, and that her neighbors also weren’t previously informed.

    She now worries for the safety of her family who frequently spends time outdoors.

    “It is unjust to have folks who live around (here) be unaware of what potentially could affect their health,” Amador told San José Spotlight.

    Residents said this isn’t the first time environmental concerns have been ignored by city officials.

    This month, the Reid-Hillview airport was listed in the Silicon Valley Pain Index for creating high levels of lead in children’s blood. The study is published annually by San Jose State and examines racial discrimination and wealth inequality in the city. And in May, a Kidango daycare in East San Jose was found to have high levels of lead in the water, the same daycare where Amador sent her youngest son.

    Amador said despite these growing concerns, she can’t afford to move.

    “It feels like we’re not valued,” she said. “It feels like we don’t matter.”

    Ortiz submitted a memo to the Rules and Open Government Committee on Friday asking city officials to collaborate with the community on a list of potential solutions. This includes a resolution timeline and establishing an intergovernmental committee co-chaired by Ortiz and county Supervisor Cindy Chavez. Ortiz has also requested the city attorney submit a private memo to hold the Regional Water Quality Control Board accountable for a timely clean-up.

    The Regional Water Quality Control Board is overseeing the cleanup of the site.

    Betty Duong, Chavez’s chief of staff who grew up minutes from the site, and said she is hopeful the committee will help decrease environmental injustice on the east side.

    “Why is it always here that we constantly let these types of rules slide or this type of compliance slide?” Duong told San José Spotlight. “This task force is to make sure that our families have a chance to be families.”

    Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on Twitter.

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