Today, the national nonprofit environmental newsroom, Grist, is launching a series with collaboration from Voice of OC looking into the hidden history of how lead contaminated Santa Ana’s soil and the stark implications for community members and officials attempting to address the impacts today.

The series’ lead writer, Grist Senior Staff Writer Yvette Cabrera is a local journalism legend in Orange County, well known for having served as one of the county’s main columnists for many years at the Orange County Register, focusing on Latino communities.

Ghosts of Polluters Past

Nicholas, dirt smeared on his face after he rooted through the soil at the base of this tree, during the 2021 Logan Barrio reunion taking place in Chepa’s Park in Santa Ana Saturday, Sept 25, 2021.

As new soil tests reveal the pervasiveness of lead contamination, one California barrio continues its long struggle for justice.

For years, Yvette has worked tirelessly to investigate and understand the vast amounts of lead that are spread throughout Santa Ana, and that also affects many Latino communities across Southern California.

Indeed, the lead photo for this column – from the keen eye of award-winning photographer Daniel A. Anderson, who worked with Yvette on the series and is also an OC Register alum – reminds me of the railroad tracks I used to play along as a kid growing up in unincorporated Southwest Whittier, bordering the cities of Santa Fe Springs, Los Nietos and Pico Rivera.

The Grist exposé raises troubling questions about how zoning was historically handled in Orange County, with people of color systematically shut out of certain neighborhoods in Santa Ana while also having their neighborhoods, like the Logan barrio, slated for the heaviest-impact industrial uses, which left a legacy of lead in the ground.

The health implications of so much lead in a community are vast, and present real challenges for any local public agency looking to really address the impacts, and clean up affected areas. 

Many urbanized communicates across America unknowingly reside in neighborhoods burdened by toxic contaminants left over from years of industrial businesses and uses. Most of the residue largely escapes regulatory scrutiny as the federal Environmental Protection Agency didn’t start tracking or regulating toxic releases until the late 1980s. Most cities have never even bothered to measure these pollutants.

From Yvette’s reporting:

“Among the most insidious contaminants of this witch’s brew is lead. Its use in everything from bullets to car batteries, from aviation fuel to automobile fuel, has allowed it to pervade every aspect of our urban lives and environment, so much so that the social historian Christian Warren has concluded that America’s cities have become veritable lead mines as a result.”

What is so effective about Yvette’s approach is that she actually walked door to door throughout the community and measured lead levels on various public and private lots, ultimately logging in some startling conclusions.

Since 2015, she collected more than 1,600 soil samples around the city, analyzing each one for the presence of lead.

Public Town Hall

Her investigation found that combined, the soil samples point to hotspots of lead contamination in certain neighborhoods in the northeastern part of the city, like the Logan area. 

Here at Voice of OC, we have worked with Yvette in the past on this issue and have partnered now with Grist to cover the issue moving forward – coupling for readers the weight and impact of a national, years-long investigation with strong follow-up coverage from a recognized local newsroom.

Next week, Voice of OC will work with Grist to host a virtual Town Hall on the topic of lead in Santa Ana, inviting Yvette along with neighborhood residents and activists to talk about the conclusions of the investigation.

To register early for the virtual town hall, click here

In addition, the Voice of OC newsroom will work with Grist to stay connected on the issue locally, engaging community members along with elected and appointed civic leaders on solutions moving forward.

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