Published as part of an environmental storytelling partnership with the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies (LENS) at the University of California, Los Angeles. The first storyline focuses on the past, present and possible futures of Taylor Yard, an abandoned and contaminated rail yard adjacent to the L.A. River. Find more stories about Taylor Yard here.
For many years, concrete layers have hidden a parcel of land contaminated with toxins linked to cancer, behavior changes, and learning disabilities in children. At an unknown time in the future, that land will become a green park that represents the center of a huge environmental revolution in Los Angeles.
It is with this complicated past – but promising future – that the city of Los Angeles decided to spend nearly $60 million to buy a 42-acre plot located along a sinuous bend in the L.A. River in northeast Los Angeles. Known as the G2 parcel, and recently called by Mayor Eric Garcetti the “Crown Jewel” of the L.A. River Project, this plot is the last vestige of Taylor Yard, a property that has been used for rail yard operations by the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroad companies since 1890 and that today is mostly under public control.
This land purchase represents another – and probably the most challenging – step in the grand project of restoring 11 miles of the L.A. River between Griffith Park and Downtown Los Angeles. The project, led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in a partnership with the City and conservation groups, plans to restore natural functioning ecosystems to parts of the river, its banks and its floodplain. The 250-acre plot of land forming Taylor Yard, considered key to the revitalization project, would become a string of public parks along the river.
But what will it take to turn contaminated land into a green and vibrant park? The answer is not easy.
For what once was a railroad empire to become a public green space will demand a complete elimination of the legacy left behind by over 60 years of the fueling, maintenance, washing, and operation of locomotives and railroad cars. That’s because former facilities at the site, which was permanently closed in 2006, include a diesel shop, a machine shop, a roundhouse, underground and aboveground fuel and oil storage tanks, and miscellaneous buildings. Even though most of the remaining structures were demolished in 2009, toxic materials remain in the ground.
Since 1985, a number of soil and groundwater studies conducted on the site by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) have indicated the presence of a variety of contaminants such as petroleum hydrocarbons, metals, and volatile organic compounds, such as tetrachloroethylene and trichloroethylene.
According to the DTSC, the chemicals most frequently found at the G2 parcel are arsenic, a known human carcinogen, and lead. The reason why the concentrations of those components are considered not safe for humans can be understood if we put their amounts in perspective. The highest concentration of arsenic in the site is 62 parts per million (ppm). For residential use, sites typically must be cleaned up to 12 ppm, which is approximately the background level of arsenic in soil. The highest concentration of lead on the site, an element affecting the development of the nervous system in children, is 5,400 ppm. For schools and homes, sites are typically cleaned up to 80 ppm.
Even though not all the site is contaminated, the areas of concern include former large holding ponds, several aboveground and underground tank locations, and a rubbish pile. In addition, solvents that were used as cleaning agents or in metal work are potential contaminants in maintenance areas. Chemicals have also been found in the groundwater below the site, and the city and DTSC recognize that there still might be a lot they — and we — don’t know about the place.
The city’s Bureau of Engineering, for example, believes that these contaminants are not negatively impacting groundwater in the area. However, they will only know for sure once the first step of the G2 parcel project, which includes standardized testing and sampling methods to assess the concentrations of the contaminants, is finished. The city expects that it will take about a year to have preliminary data, and only then will they be able to come up with a remedial action plan, which will then have to be approved by the DTSC.
Some strategies, including vapor extraction and excavation, have historically been utilized in the G2 Parcel, according to the DTSC. Also, previous studies from the department suggested remediation strategies such as covering the contaminated soil with concrete or pavement in order to create a “cap” preventing exposure to the underground contamination. But even though the cost for remediation of the site is estimated to be around $252 million – $120 million earmarked for decontamination – the processes the land will have to go through have not yet been decided.
And rather than wait until an undetermined date in the future, the city is looking to activate portions of the property that will not require full remediation for the public to enjoy the G2 parcel in the near term. Possible features of an interim design could include elevated walkways, paths for bicyclists and runners, a picnic area, and an outdoor amphitheater. These ideas, however, will only be decided upon once the investigation is completed.