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Monday, Aug. 14, 2006 | Behind the elementary school, air pours out of the auto body shop’s silver vent with a shrill whistle. Some would call it a warning.

The whining sound – like that of a clogged vacuum cleaner – carries a few hundred feet over a lush creek, through a chain-link fence and across the empty playground of National City’s Kimball Elementary School.

The school is a plain building, trimmed with teal, stuccoed in gray and surrounded by black asphalt. It is a place where two in every three students are still learning English, where 85 percent of children qualify for free or reduced lunches.

It is an island in a sea of industry, surrounded by auto body shops with names like Steve’s West Coast Automotive, where ratchets whir and metal grinds.

And, says Robert “Dukie” Valderrama, it is the scene of a crime.

For two decades, Valderrama, a Port Commissioner and National City native, has told this story to anyone who will listen. And yet for all the recitals, his deep brown eyes still well with emotion when he talks about his son, Randy.

Randy’s story: It is the late 1970s. He is healthy. Vivacious. Loves learning. The school system dubs him gifted and sends him across town to Kimball. He spends about a year there. And then he starts getting sick.

He is not yet a teen, and he is losing energy. Tests reveal toxins in his blood. The family tests their home and don’t identify any source. Valderrama says a process of elimination leads them to Kimball School.

Randy’s health, Valderrama says, has never been the same. Even now, at age 29, he’ll get sick if he smells the wrong odor. This is hard to understand, Valderrama knows that. But Valderrama says his son’s immune system was compromised. As a result, he says, he will never lead a healthy life.

“It started here,” Valderrama says. “No question in my mind.”

Valderrama is standing in front of the school as he says this. He studied here, too, more than 40 years ago. Back then, this neighborhood – called Old Town – looked nothing like it does now.

He waves his right hand at the changed landscape. Old Town used to be homes, he says. All homes.

Now, 17 auto body and paint shops are interspersed among the modest residences. The National City-based Environmental Health Coalition estimates that at least three other auto paint shops operate without permits.

Local residents and environmental advocates say the pairing is toxic. Anecdotally, they cite an increase in asthma and other health complications and blame it on those emissions whistling out from within the neighborhood’s industrial structures. No formal studies have been conducted to gauge the true health impacts in the neighborhood to confirm their suspicions. But the issue is gaining steam in this South Bay city, as the National City City Council earlier this month took the first step toward removing the plants from the neighborhood.

Old Town has become an example of how not to design a neighborhood. Tony LoPresti, an Environmental Health Coalition policy advocate, blames it on decisions made half a century ago, which dumped polluting businesses in a poor, disenfranchised Latino neighborhood that was the political path of least resistance. This is not unusual in San Diego County, where people of color are more likely than whites to live near Superfund sites and polluting businesses.

LoPresti says Old Town’s Latino residents are now living a legacy of racism, created by politicians some 50 years ago.

Valderrama says this: “They zoned it to the point that they just made it a dying community.”

That could slowly change. National City’s City Council approved an ordinance Aug. 1 that provides a way to phase out those industrial businesses. Once a specific plan for the neighborhood is adopted in the next nine months, industrial uses will be outlawed in Old Town. While existing businesses would be grandfathered in, the amortization ordinance, as it’s technically called, will allow the city to force businesses to relocate – without resorting to eminent domain. Supporters hope the city will eventually create an industrial park to house them.

“It’s another tool we can use to help clean that up in the future,” Councilman Frank Parra says of the ordinance. “Clearly it’s not the magic bullet, it won’t happen overnight.”

The ordinance, Parra says, would correct years of poor planning. A drive down any Old Town street narrates the neighborhood’s schizophrenic evolution from residential center to auto shop hub.

There are the hulking two-story auto body shops that lord over small one-story stucco homes, sometimes separated by just a few feet.

There is the sugary sweet smell of solvent, swirling through the air like a salty ocean breeze.

And there is the juxtaposition of industry and home life embodied in one scene: Three guys fresh off of work, looming around their car outside of a metal shop, trading loud stories and drinking cool cans of Budweiser, while a girl – no older than eight – wobbles up on a blue bicycle. She sees them, stops and turns around.

In the 1950s, the area was predominantly Latino and predominantly residential. But in the 1960s, vacant homes were torn down to clear the way for businesses. Valderrama’s boyhood home is gone, replaced in 1965 by a commercial lot.

Developers were “mining it, just like a coal mine, a diamond mine, taking out the assets and leaving the waste behind,” says Ted Godshalk, a former city planning commissioner and chairman of the Old Town Neighborhood Council.

What has been left behind? Anecdotal evidence points to higher asthma rates in the neighborhood. After a former Kimball principal raised concerns about students’ asthma rates, the city formed an asthma committee.

But it is hard to tell if the auto body shops are to blame. Interstate 5 slices through Old Town, bringing pollution from tailpipes. Homes are sometimes substandard: bad carpet, cockroach infestations.

And few if any academic studies have examined the effects of auto body shop emissions.

Residents’ fears “probably have some basis in truth,” said Ralph Delfino, associate professor of environmental epidemiology at University of California, Irvine, who has studied toxic air pollution’s health effects. “But from a scientific perspective it’s hard to nail that down.”

Thomas Weeks, chief of the engineering division at the San Diego Air Pollution Control District, which monitors auto body shops, says none of the Old Town businesses produces enough emissions to trigger a risk assessment. That trigger is based on individual emissions – not cumulative risk.

“They emit a couple of tons a year – and the chemicals that they use are not highly toxic,” Weeks said. “Most of them are not carcinogens.”

But just because regulations don’t call for a deeper analysis doesn’t mean there’s no health threat, one air quality expert said.

“I think there is reason to be concerned,” said Timothy Buckley, chairman of the environmental health sciences division at Ohio State University’s School of Public Health. “Sometimes the regulatory threshold is unfortunately much behind the public health need. The regulatory thresholds may not be current with the research, that’s for sure.”

Robert “Dukie” Valderrama admits he doesn’t have scientific proof that the air is polluted in Old Town. But, he asks, where else in National City are commercial paint shops and auto body shops built next to schools?

“It just doesn’t happen,” he says. “Nobody was thinking long-term of the ramifications it would have for a low-income community.”

As he speaks, he keeps repeating the reason he is concerned.

“I live here,” he says. “This is my community.”

Please contact Rob Davis directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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