As the closing bell rings at Jordan high school, a cacophony of adolescent chatter nearly overpowers the mechanical noises that emanate from the metal recycling plant next door. Students hardly register the lustrous dust – laced with lead, chromium and other contaminants – that settles into the blacktop as they rush out the front gates.
For generations of Jordan students, the mounds of scrap metal behind campus are a familiar sight. The high school opened in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1923, while the plant, owned by S&W Atlas Iron & Metal Co has been there since 1949.
“Nobody really complained about it, because I guess we just kind of had to get used to it,” said Diana Salvador, who graduated from Jordan high in 2019. But she’s horrified when she thinks back. “We would sit outside, eating lunch while they were throwing scrap pieces around. And we were breathing that air – inhaling lead.”
It’s only in recent years that local authorities started to grow concerned – linking toxic contamination on school grounds to the piles of metal detritus next door. Lab testing in 2020 commissioned by the school district and state authorities found dangerous levels of lead – a neurotoxin – and other heavy metals in the school’s softball field and inside classrooms. Test results reviewed by the Guardian revealed concentrations several times higher than what the US government considers safe for children.
Now, two lawsuits could push Atlas out, and allow Jordan high students to breathe a bit easier.
In 2020, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) sued Atlas in federal court. Although the recycler denies responsibility for contamination on campus, blaming other possible sources, LAUSD contends that Atlas, and its barrage of metal projectiles and toxic emissions, is an imminent threat to the school. And last year, the city of Los Angeles filed suit against the recycler as well, alleging that Atlas is in violation of health and safety codes.
But in an industrial community where children have become inured to a daily deluge of pollution, residents are dubious that anything will change soon.
Watts – a predominantly Black and Latino neighborhood in south LA – is built atop land steeped in industrial contamination and bordered by two congested freeways. Recycling plants, lumber yards, auto shops, fabricators and warehouses adjoin playgrounds and churches. Just east of Jordan high, the Alameda corridor, a 20-mile (32 km) freight expressway, vibrates with a noxious stream of rail and truck traffic flowing between the two busiest ports in the country.
Here, the average life expectancy is 12 years shorter than it is in wealthier parts of Los Angeles – in part due to the pollution. According to California’s office of environmental health hazard assessment, the area where Jordan high is located suffers environmental burdens – from dust, diesel fumes, toxic waste and water contamination – in the 99th percentile compared with the rest of the state.
“It is kind of evil to continue to add pollution to neighborhoods that are already struggling so much,” said Heaven Watson, a junior at Jordan. “But it’s like, what can you do? This is a low-income neighborhood.”
Among her group of friends, she said, “two out of three of us have somebody in our family with some type of condition due to pollution”.
Fatima Iqbal-Zubair, a former teacher at Jordan high who is now running for state assembly on an environmental justice platform, said it crushed her to see how accustomed her students were to the signs plastered at school, and around the neighborhood, warning them to beware of contamination. “I would literally tell them, ‘No, this is not normal’,” she said. “This is not a normal way to live.”
Toxic ‘purple shimmer’
Across the country, low-income children of color are most likely to be exposed to harmful air pollution at school. Local leaders said that the Atlas facility is part of this legacy of environmental racism.
In a community that is already contending with so many hazards, the Atlas recycling plant “is like a big slap in the face”, said Tea Vickers, an organizer with the Better Watts Initiative, a local environmental group.
The facility is a half-block compound, heaped with piles of crushed up car parts, steel tubing and metallic detritus. The materials are dismantled to salvage copper, steel, aluminum and other metals that can be refined and reused in manufacturing.
The business markets its service as a way for individuals and industries to reduce their carbon footprints, keep reusable metal out of landfills and preserve natural resources. Sourcing aluminum or copper from scratch results in far more carbon emissions than using recycled metals, but the recycling process can be messy and ultimately toxic. Teachers, students and school administrators said the facility’s operations can be distracting – and dangerous.
Watson said the noise from Atlas has, at times, drowned out her physics lectures. Salvador, who lives in the housing projects right next to Jordan high and Atlas, said that when she first moved to the area, she’d wake up to the noise each morning, panicking that there had been an earthquake.
On occasion, the shards of scrap metal have zoomed on to the blacktop where students play pickup basketball, and where the high school’s military training program runs afterschool drills. At the boundary between the school and Atlas metals, in the softball field, Watson said she has spotted nails and small pieces of broken glass.
The school’s field was renovated in 2020 but until this month, games were being held at opponents’ schools, where the players could bat and field without having to brace for errant metal shards. A fence affixed with warning signs, cutting through the third baseline, recently came down after school officials cleaned the area and worked with Atlas to reduce the risk of projectiles.
As an extra shield against projectiles, Atlas had erected a stack of shipping containers behind the wall that separates it from the school. But the school district countered that the improvised barrier made students less safe. “What if they had toppled over?” said Carlos Torres, director of LAUSD’s office of environmental health & safety.
The most alarming problem remains lead-laced dust that drifts across campus, according to students, administrators and community members. Unsuspecting students might breathe in trace amounts as they shuffle through the school day, or drag some home on the frayed edges of their Y2K revival jeans.
Teachers and school staff have described the dust as a “purple shimmer” in court documents, and the school district alleges that it emanates from the heaps of shredded metals at Atlas.
Lab testing has confirmed that the dust is as insidious as it appears. Testing commissioned by LAUSD, and reviewed by the Guardian, revealed lead concentrations up to 790 micrograms per square foot in dust samples taken from classroom floors – more than 75 times higher than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines as a hazardous threshold.
The state’s department of toxic substances control (DTSC) also found elevated lead and heavy metal concentrations in outdoor areas around the school. Soil and dirt samples collected from the softball field and near the batting cages contained lead concentrations of 400 parts per million (ppm) or higher, which the EPA considers a hazard.
In dirt samples taken from Atlas’ facility, DTSC found lead concentrations of up to 10,000 parts per million (ppm).
Lead-based paint – which the US banned for consumer use in 1978 – is a common source of contamination on older school campuses across the country. But at Jordan high, lead and other heavy metals including cadmium were discovered inside classrooms constructed in 2013 and in fields that had already been cleaned and renovated – leading the school district to link the contamination to Atlas’ operations.
Lead is especially toxic to children because it can affect the development of their brain and nervous system. Studies have found it can lead to cognitive and behavioral problems, hinder children’s attention span and their ability to do well in school.
Even small amounts of lead in a child’s bloodstream can cause damage, said Martha Dina Argüello, the executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA. “And it causes permanent damage, damage that children will carry throughout their entire lives.”
Emissions from metal recycling plants can also add to particulate pollution from vehicle emissions and exacerbate respiratory conditions including asthma. Mary Ann Cortez, who lives a few blocks from the Atlas facility, said the dust that penetrates her carpets and clouds her windows terrifies her.
Cortez’s eldest daughter, who recently graduated from Jordan, has asthma, and her middle daughter is beginning to develop respiratory problems as well. “We’re in a community where it feels like you’re incarcerated, where you have to live with all your doors closed and windows pulled because of the pollution,” she said.
‘Something has to change’
Atlas Metals has been involved in some form of litigation with the school district and the city for five years now, but it has been in conflict with the school for much longer. In 2002, a Navy shell that Atlas was dismantling exploded, launching a chunk of metal on to Jordan’s campus. In the subsequent years, DTSC and the EPA ordered Atlas to clean up 1,400 cubic yards of soil and debris along its border with Jordan high, after the waste piles were found to contain hazardous levels of lead, zinc, chromium, arsenic and other contaminants.
After decades of complaints, “just the fact that we’re having to have a conversation about air quality and soil samples and the noise in our classrooms is really disheartening”, said Lucía Cerda, Jordan high school’s principal. “We shouldn’t have to do so much advocacy just to make sure our students are safe.”
Between 2017 and 2020, the school has spent more than $2.4m to test, treat and monitor contamination on campus. Portions of the campus have been cleaned and treated two or three times, said LAUSD’s Torres. “And they’re continually getting recontaminated – it just really crushes me.”
The two lawsuits are seeking damages from the recycler for violations of health and safety codes. Ultimately, said Torres, the school could come to a deal with Atlas, and help the recycler move to another location – away from the school.
Atlas has argued the district’s claim that the recycling facility is the source of contamination “is factually groundless”. Matthew Weisenberg, who owns Atlas, noted that no sampling can directly link the dust at Jordan high with Atlas. In an industrial community such as Watts, there are several possible sources of particulate pollution and heavy metal contamination, he said. “To blame Atlas for all the school’s contamination problems ignores the current and past realities of this neighborhood,” Weisenberg said in a statement to the Guardian.
The school has countered that even if laboratories cannot confirm the provenance of toxic dust, tests conducted by the DTSC have found elevated levels of the same heavy metal contaminants at both the Atlas facility and the school, with no known sources other than the metal recycler.
And even if Atlas isn’t the sole source of contamination in Watts, it’s clear that the facility is a part of the problem, said Timothy Watkins, president of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee. It’s a “blight,” he said – a glaring, ugly reminder of the neighborhood’s toxic legacy. “We just shouldn’t have a metal salvage operation next to a school. And we wouldn’t have in Beverly Hills or Bel-Air,” he added. Atlas “should get the hell out of Watts”.
Relocating the plant will not be straightforward. Part of the problem is that few areas exist in California that are near enough to major transport corridors, but far enough from communities.
Moreover, many local residents are defensive of Atlas as a longtime family business, and one that has provided employment or income to many in the area. The company’s owners prop up local causes, donate to local sports teams and sponsor community events. It’s not uncommon to find people running errands in Atlas-branded T-shirts.
Jacquelyn Badejo, director of the Watts Clean Air and Energy Committee, a local advocacy group, points out that Atlas, and the Weisenberg family, have been a part of Watts for decades. She sees the push to remove Atlas against a backdrop of change and redevelopment in Watts, which she and other long-time residents worry could displace Black and brown families. In recent years, a $1bn revitalization project has brought in new, sand-hued apartments and a 115,000 square-foot shopping center across from the high school – with plans to build more new housing underway.
Badejo and others wonder if the city and school district are cleaning up the neighborhood under the auspices of environmental justice, while seeking to attract more private developers and wealthier, whiter residents. “It’s really just a part of gentrification,” she said.
Watson, the Jordan high junior, said she vacillates between thinking of the mounds of scraps piled higher than the school’s fence as an eyesore – and contending with what it means for her health.
Fumes from the facility sometimes seep into the classrooms, and students jokingly call it the scent of “sewer rat”. Watson said she usually avoids dwelling on what exactly she’s breathing in, but more and more, her anger is creeping in.
“It’s not an anger that’s mad, but an anger that makes me want to do something,” she said. “Something has to change.”