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Guest Opinion | Kristin Shrader-Frechette: Stop Toxic Housing in Pasadena

Published on Wednesday, November 18, 2020 | 3:12 pm
Kristin Shrader-Frechette Photo courtesy: University of Notre Dame

Although for decades the former Naval Ordnance Testing Facility, Pasadena, did secret, classified development, testing, and manufacturing of weapons, including nuclear missiles, it has never been cleaned up. The sister facility of Jet Propulsion Labs, its toxins are up to a million times higher than allowed. They cause cancer, birth defects, and damage to the brain, kidneys, multiple other organs, and are especially harmful to children. California regulators called the site “an imminent and substantial” danger.

Supported by nearly 2000 Pasadena residents, our local, all-volunteer, citizens’ group, Stop Toxic Housing in Pasadena, recently filed notice it would appeal a non-jury decision by a single judge. That decision allows developer Trammell Crow to build 550 apartments on the toxic site, without first performing full cleanup. Our group’s slogan and philosophy is “Affordable Housing Yes, Toxic Housing No.”

The fundamental problem is that Trammell Crow is claiming to do full cleanup, but its own scientific documents show the opposite. For instance, in August 2019 Trammell Crow sent Pasadena residents a glossy brochure that claimed it would clean up the toxic site “to highest state standards.” Trammell Crow repeatedly made similar statements to the city; at the 4-15-19 Pasadena City Council meeting, Brad Cox of Trammell Crow again assured everyone that his company would complete a “thorough and safe cleanup of the existing soil contaminants.”

Yet Trammell Crow’s own scientific documents show that because full cleanup “would be a costly and time-intensive process,” none of the roughly 35 site contaminants will be cleaned up to the highest state standard. For instance, Trammell Crow’s own approved documents allow it to leave carcinogens, solvents like trichloroethylene (TCE), onsite at 26,000 times higher than the state standard—the level needed to prevent cancer and birth defects.

Similarly, DTSC (CA Department of Toxic Substances Control) scientists, reviewing Trammell Crow’s scientific documents, asked Trammell Crow for “evidence that” site carcinogens, “proposed to be left in place will not be a future threat.” Trammell Crow responded that providing such safety evidence “is outside the…obligations of Pasadena Gateway [the name of the Trammell Crow LLC developing the toxic site].”

Instead of full cleanup, Trammell Crow convinced state regulators to allow it to employ permanent monitoring, land-use controls, electrically-run blowers, and a thin sheet of plastic under buildings, to try to keep cancer-causing gases from entering apartments. US EPA says the plastic doesn’t work. It gets punctured and is often installed improperly, and permanent monitoring is necessary to try to protect residents. Ongoing monitoring and land-use controls are required only at toxic sites that have not been cleaned up to meet government standards and that remain very dangerous.

The fact that the state regulator, DTSC, is not protecting Pasadena residents is nothing new. Consumer Watchdog recently warned that “California has some of the toughest environmental-protection laws in the nation, but also some of the weakest enforcement.” Recall what recently happened in the Los Angeles Exide Battery case; thousands of low-income, minority children have permanent IQ deficits because, for decades, DTSC was not doing its job. After 10 years of mostly unsuccessful attempts to reform DTSC, the California Legislature’s Joint Oversight Committee said in 2019 that DTSC has “an inadequate and unresponsive regulatory program.”

In response to Trammell Crow and DTSC, scores of leading physicians and biological/medical scientists—from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, MIT, Notre Dame, UCLA, UCSF, USC, etc—have examined the Pasadena scientific studies. They say the only way to protect public health is to “require full site testing and cleanup before any construction” on the Pasadena toxic site.

Pasadena’s toxic-site problem is fixable. However, Trammell Crow apparently doesn’t want to spend the money to fix it, although it’s the largest commercial developer in the US, with $65 billion in assets. Instead, the state regulator is allowing Trammell Crow to spend only $1 million for partial Pasadena cleanup. Given the price of nearby commercial properties, Trammell Crow appears to be buying the toxic site for up to an $85-million discount, a 70% discount, likely because of its contamination. Why isn’t Trammell Crow spending more of its apparent, $85-million savings on site cleanup that would protect our community?

If Trammell Crow is so confident about the quality of its cleanup, why did it require DTSC to remove its liability for site toxins before pursuing the development? If Trammell Crow needs liability protection because of contamination, don’t site residents and the city need it too?

Shrader-Frechette is an environmental scientist and biologist from the University of Notre Dame, currently a Pasadena resident, she has authored 18 books and 450 scientific articles, she has served on US EPA’s Science Advisory Board and many US National Academy of Sciences boards/committees. The governments of Australia, Canada, Congo, Germany, Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and the US have repeatedly sought her assistance in dealing with their own hazardous-waste problems, and she has helped to clean up hazardous sites in each of these nations. The US National Science Foundation has funded her scientific research for 28 years, and she has won international/national awards for pro-bono work to protect poor/minority communities from pollution throughout the world. (kshrader@, website

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