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‘We Want Our Families to Live a Healthy Long Life:’ Students in Watts Protest Metal Company Contaminating Their Community

Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families

Students at Jordan High school play next as the metal company next door moves piles of scrap metal.

Welcome to L.A. TACO’s new monthly education column, “The L.A. Public School Report,” made possible by Great Public Schools Now.  If you have any story tips, send them to janette@lataco.com for consideration.

While most seniors at Jordan High School should be anxiously getting a head start on their prom and graduation plans. Some students like Heaven Watson and her classmates are instead fighting toxins that they said are contaminating their community in Watts. 

On Watson’s first day of school, students, parents, staff, and residents protested outside the campus, demanding that something be done about the toxins being transmitted from the recycling company next door. S&W Atlas Iron & Metal Co, the company in question, is a scrap metal business that, according to testing done by the school district, is contaminating JHS and residents with toxic fumes and lead levels 75 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency deems as hazardous. 

“I found out through a project about all of this,” said Watson during the second week of school. “Learned in June, and by July, I was on a trip to Washington D.C. to advocate for Watts and talk about the environmental racism going on in our neighborhood.”

For students like her who have lived in the community of Watt’s their entire life, the news about the contamination did not come as a surprise. 

“I’ve been at Jordan for years and seen it transition, the loud noises, and random smells. I didn’t pay any mind to it because I thought, well, this is normal, right?” she said. “Seeing this happen in low-income neighborhoods like mine, with industrial polluters and factories everywhere, it's just what we're used to.”

Senior Genisis Cruz also found out in detail about the contamination coming from the school's next-door neighbors and agreed with Watson.

“Honestly, when I found out, I guess I was really used to hearing unfortunate news and being disappointed that I couldn't feel anything anymore,” Cruz said with a slight crack in her voice.  

For years reports of toxins in the soil or water have been reported in the city of Watts. In 2017 there were reports of yellow and brown water coming out of faucets in Jordan Downs, one of Los Angeles's oldest public housing projects that happens to be near the school. And six years back in 2011, soil testing determined that soil vapors were, in fact, dangerous, finding chemicals like trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) that are said to be considered carcinogenic, toxins that are able to cause liver, kidney, and reproductive problems. And in 2013, Curbed LA reported that the life expectancy of Watts residents is 11.9 years less than that of other cities in Los Angeles. 

“We’re neglected. This would not happen in a more affluent community that is more white,” Watson said. 

Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families
Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families
Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families On the left-hand side, the scrap metal company Atlas operates daily next to Jordan High School's softball field.
Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families
Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families
Photo via: Coalition for Healthy Families

Ingrid Rivera, president of the Latino Coalition of Los Angeles (LCLA) explained how contamination coming from this facility has been an ongoing issue for longer than it’s been reported. JHS was founded in 1923, and Atlas came into the picture almost 30 years after being established in 1949. She said, “imagine the damage to the communities health.”

“We launched our first LCLA press conference in April, back in 2002, when there was a bomb explosion that caused the school to evacuate,” Rivera said. “There's a particular classroom on the third floor. They literally have to keep all of the windows closed because the smell coming for Atlas is unbearable.”

According to the L.A. Times, the explosion Rivera talked about resulted in 200 Navy shells being removed from the metal company after one of them exploded, causing a metal piece to be launched over 1,000 feet in the air before landing on campus grounds. Since then, some efforts have been made thanks to the pressure put on over 1,000 staff and students. Atlas has been served with two lawsuits, one by LAUSD and the other by the city. 

Since then, flying scrap metal has been launched onto the campus, loud noises are heard, and smells and ground shaking have continued to disrupt students learning. 

“Sometimes we'll jump because it's so loud, like this one time we were taking a test and this really big drop interrupted us in the middle of the test because it scared us,” said Cruz.

Despite the lawsuits and multiple violations, Atlas continues to operate, most recently, the company was served with a search warrant by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Bureau of Investigation. L.A. TACO did reach out to the County’s District Attorney’s office, where they confirmed the search warrant but declined to comment any further, describing the situation as an ongoing investigation. Unfortunately, the search warrant has not stopped the company from continuing its day-to-day operations. Last week, LCLA reported a 29-inch piece of shrapnel that was tossed in a nearby walkway.

“It’s clear that fines and fees have done nothing to protect students from facing dangerous threats at school,” Tim Watkins, a member of the Coalition for Healthy Families, said in a public statement. “We’ve demanded action from our leaders for years, yet nothing has changed. It’s only a matter of time before someone gets seriously injured or worse.”

Shipping containers in the past have been stacked up on top of each other as an effort from Atlas to avoid any metal flying over to the school. But advocates and residents see the effort as doing the “bare minimum.” Back on campus, some students report being advised not to drink any of the fountain water and instead are advised to bring their own bottles due to their water being contaminated

“I’ve been drinking the fountain water for so long because I used to play sports; I know that stuff is in me,” Watson said, showing concern. “This is affecting us kids. No one taking action makes us feel like we don’t matter, we may be graduating, and who knows where we will go, but our families will stay here, and we want our families to live a healthy and long life.”

Rivera from LCLA explained how as a community, they really are looking at local politicians to take action on the matter. When asked what she would consider an immediate solution to the problem, she said closing the company would be the first thing officials could do. She also added, “providing resources for the students and community to go get tested and go get their blood work done, and get their respiratory system checked out.”

It’s clear that their fight for a better educational and living environment is only starting, and although they don't entirely blame Atlas alone for the toxins, to them, they are one of the main sources. And students, as well as staff and residents, are not giving up easily. 

“I want to see growth in the community; I feel like in this situation, we're being taken advantage of. Right now is our time to speak up,” said Cruz. “I think about the younger generation, the kids who will eventually end up here. It’s absolutely sad to think this will be an issue years from now.”

“I know we can't change things fast, but I am satisfied with getting the information out to the community. For me, that is enough, empowering the community with knowledge, and we can gradually create change with information,” added Watson.

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