Is Downey Studios safe?

DOWNEY - Since the L.A. Times reported the claims of dozens of film workers who relate their health problems to hazardous conditions at Downey Studios, city officials, studio executives and injured workers have refused to waver, and vow to defend their arguments.Published on Aug. 2, the Times article analyzed the claims of many film workers who say they have developed severe symptoms, such as headaches, memory loss, tremors, and rashes since working on the former NASA site. "The place is a toxic dump," said Leonard Martin, 45, who worked as a prop maker at Downey Studios in 2002 on the film "Dare Devil" and in 2004 on "The Island." "I was so sick, but I thought it was the regular flu," said Martin, in a phone interview. "The specialists didn't know what was going on with me." According to a 2005 medical report, Martin experienced a number of symptoms including headaches, dizziness, short term memory loss, chest tightness and cough. Based upon the report, it was the doctor's impression that the condition was related to airborne contaminants found at Downey Studios. Martin is still immersed in a legal battle over compensation for his illness. For Martin, the Times article offered some vindication, giving workers, like himself, a chance to share their stories. Stuart Lichter, president of Industrial Realty Group, which operates Downey Studios, called the article "inconsistent and sensational." "It's a total, fabricated lie," Lichter said over the phone. "This is one of the most documented sites, from its federal ownership to our ownership of the property." Lichter maintains that the property is environmentally safe from every point of view. The Times article examined the medical reports of former workers and presented inspection records from the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, who reviewed the property's remediation. In August 2003, yellow-green spots of soil contaminated with chromium were excavated from underneath Building 1, the main studio building, as workers built a 60,000-square-foot indoor water tank for the film "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events." Production halted inside the building and crews went home until samples of the soil were tested. Tests confirmed the presence of hexavalent chromium and the contaminated soil was taken out of Building 1 to the back lot. Prolonged exposure to hexavalent chromium can cause irritation and damage to the nose, throat and lungs. IRG's vice president of construction and project management, Tom Messmer, remembers the cleanup process. "There were two piles of dirt," said Messmer. "One was harmful and it was covered in plastic with sandbags around it. The other tested safe." On the Downey Studio property, Messmer pointed out where the contaminated soil was placed, several yards away from the 16-home suburban street set on the studio's back lot. Once the contaminated soil was removed from Building 1, production for "Lemony Snicket" continued inside the studio. Messmer initially told the Times that no production occurred outside until after the contaminated soil was removed, but later acknowledged that production crews for "Taxi" and "Christmas With the Kranks" were present during that time. Jeff Hill, a lighting technician on the film "Taxi", argued in the Times story that his work, laying cable, outside Downey Studios caused him to develop lesions on his arms and a growth on his thyroid. "If I had known about the contaminated soil, I never would have stepped foot on that property," said Hill, 43, in the Times article. Messmer said the production crews were properly notified of the soil and maintained that the soil was nowhere near the filming of "Taxi." The soil was entirely remediated by Feb. 10, 2004, according to water board records. Vickie Travis, 59, of Antelope Valley, advocates medical treatment for those claiming illnesses after working on the former NASA site. "I worry about the little kid digging in that dirt," said Travis. "This is about your kids and grandkids - it has nothing to do with any movie studio." Travis runs a website which chronicles the history and transfer of the NASA property and questions whether the land is free of contaminants. "My hope is to get these people some help," said Travis. "I've interviewed hundreds of people who got sick on that site. They all had the same story and didn't even know each other." Mayor Mario Guerra, in a statement released Monday, assured Downey residents that the property has been thoroughly evaluated and is environmentally safe. "I know this personally…I have seen the details and the efforts that have been made throughout the years," wrote Guerra. "I feel they are mistaken about where their injuries occurred. The facts back us up." Despite Guerra's confidence, Martin insists IRG is being untruthful about the safety of Downey Studios. "They can't say, 'Our hands are clean,'" said Martin. "You wouldn't have a whole bunch of people sick if nothing was wrong."

********** Published: August 7, 2009 - Volume 8 - Issue 16