Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011 | Rita Lupercio was cooking a traditional Mexican soup this summer at her mobile home in south Anaheim when the earth began to tremble. She said her pot of hot soup fell to the floor and she slipped, falling down and burning her back.
This was no earthquake. She said the shaking was caused by the $66-million Gene Autry Way expansion project, the centerpiece of which is a bridge that extends the street west from Interstate 5.
Anaheim officials describe the expansion — funded by federal, state, and local grants — as a "critical link" between Anaheim's resort district and the Platinum Triangle development area.
"This is a regional effort that has been needed for years, since the I-5 was opened many, many years ago," said Marty De Sollar, a city spokeswoman.
But Lupercio and other low-income residents of Del Ray Estates, a mobile home park beside the project, say the construction has caused many problems for their community, including health issues, property damage and dangerous conditions for children. They claim the city did not adequately mitigate the impacts of the project and has been slow to address their suffering.
In addition to the constant noise, shaking and dangerous conditions, residents say dust from the project is both aggravating their existing health issues and creating new ones. The residents have an attorney but say they don't have the resources to hire experts needed to pursue a case against the city.
City officials say they've done everything they can to address issues as they come up, including holding community meetings and finding ways to reduce dust and noise.
"We're taking their concerns seriously, and we're trying to mitigate as best we can the effects of the construction," said Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait. He added that he visited the site to see the effects for himself but can't comment on specific concerns because of ongoing litigation.
"This Is Not Good for You"
Emma Perez lives 25 feet from the construction site and says that dust kicked up by the project has aggravated her breathing problems and caused pain in her throat.
"My doctor told me, 'Move, this is not good for you,' " said Perez. But she doubts she could sell her home, given the ongoing construction. "All day, all day, it's this problem. I'm tired. I'm sick," she said.
Elena Torres, an attorney representing several residents who filed claims against the city over the construction, said a boy living next to the site was taken to an emergency room multiple times for skin rashes that a doctor determined came from the air.
Other residents said that dust from the construction has given them watery eyes, headaches, itchy throats and other ailments.
Lupercio said pile driving started at 7 a.m. and continued until dark, causing a crack to form in her roof and kitchen supplies to fall from cabinets. The residents added that on two occasions about two months ago, poles were dumped close to the homes around 2 a.m., making noise so loud that it awakened and frightened the neighbors.
Residents also say that for about three months earlier this year, children were forced to walk in the street unprotected from traffic on Manchester Avenue to reach their elementary school after the sidewalk was closed for construction. The entrance for construction vehicles is now directly in front of Del Ray's playground.
A 2007 environmental study commissioned by the city found elevated levels of arsenic and low-level petroleum contamination in the soil at the project site, as well as a likely presence of asbestos in buildings that would be destroyed for the project.
The study said the soil should be treated as containing "harmful levels of arsenic and treated and disposed of as such." Arsenic and asbestos are carcinogens, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Rudy Emami, Anaheim's design services manager, added that the city hired inspectors to monitor the removal of the contaminated soil. The contractor is required to file a closeout report saying how the materials were removed, which is then reviewed by the city's Fire Department.
As part of an eminent domain lawsuit between the city and the Del Ray landowners, some tenants have received $700 per home from the city as part of a settlement for losing access to their community room and pool. But that suit does not provide an avenue for residents to seek changes to the construction or compensation for the project's health and property impacts.
Torres has filed claims against the city on behalf of her clients, the first step toward a lawsuit to seek compensation for health effects, injuries, property damage and other issues. But she said the residents lack the funds to hire the necessary experts to prove a link between the project and the impacts.
"We've Taken All the Steps We Can"
City officials say they've reached out to residents and done everything possible to solve problems raised by the community.
"We feel we've taken all the steps we can to mitigate the impacts," said Emami, the city's design services manager. He added that during construction the city has held four meetings with residents and one meeting several months before construction began.
Emami said that while pile driving is always the worst part of construction, studies have shown that the vibration is minimal — equivalent to less than a 1.0 earthquake.
That's not enough to cause cracks in roofs, he said. All studies have verified "that the vibration is not that significant to cause that type of damage," said Emami.
"There was a lot of noise because of the pile driving," he added, so the contractor then used sound blankets to reduce noise.
He added that the contractor has been watering the site to prevent dust and placed concrete barriers on the street to create a protected path on Manchester Avenue.
"At all times we've always had safe access through the work zone," said Emami. "The contractors always ensure safe access."
But there is at least one instance where the contractor might not have followed the terms of its contract.
Regarding concerns about pipes being loudly dropped off in the middle of the night at the bridge site about two months ago, Emami said the city received complaints about night working and told the contractor, C.C. Myers, to stop. The contract permits night work only on the freeway section of the project, said Emami.
Beth Ruyak, a spokeswoman for C.C. Myers, declined to address the alleged night work or say whether the firm has followed the terms of its contract, instead referring questions to the city.
Mayor Tait said he couldn't comment on whether C.C. Myers is adhering to the contract or on the specific concerns of residents because of ongoing litigation.
The ultimate mental and physical effects of the project on Del Ray residents are uncertain, their attorney says, especially for those with allergies, breathing and skin problems.
"They have risks everywhere," Torres said. "Don't we have some common sense, some interest in what's right?"
Construction is expected to end in January 2013.
You can reach Nick Gerda at email@example.com