Jim Ebert, a representative of the owners of the complex at 600 Whisman Road, Evandale Investors LLC, reversed course on Wednesday and said that indoor air testing would be allowed on the site, as well as groundwater testing. The complex may be affected by TCE fumes from Superfund sites on North Whisman Road.
The situation caught the attention of the neighborhood when it was first reported in the Voice on Feb. 15 that the EPA said it had been refused permission to do air sampling inside the apartments.
EPA officials said they had not been in direct contact with the owner, but received a note from the complex's property management firm — Prometheus Real Estate Group — saying that the owners "weren't going to be participating in the testing," said David Yogi, EPA Region 9 spokesman. "It was back in January. They didn't give any reasons why."
The Voice has been in contact with four residents of the complex who are interested in indoor air testing, including Enrico Granata. He also contacted property managers and was told that the EPA or their contractors "didn't want to provide the insurance which we require for anyone doing work on the property," he said in an email.
"I am surprised that an agency of the federal government can be refused access to residential units," Granata said in an email.
Prometheus had an entirely different message after the Voice contacted Jon Moss, the Prometheus executive representing several large apartment projects seeking approval from the City Council.
"The expectation is to cooperate fully with whatever the EPA wants to do out there," Moss said. "There's no reason why the owner or us as managers would have any issues with EPA providing any kind of testing on the site."
"There's no reason not to be cooperative," Ebert said. "It is super important to make sure our residents are happy."
Ebert said he hadn't heard about the issue until Wednesday and chalked it up to a misunderstanding.
Granata was happy to hear the news that testing would be allowed.
"I believe that a combination of the serious concern of residents and having the local press giving ample coverage to the issue has been key to unlocking this and making the larger issue of health and safety for people prevail over petty procedural problems," he said.
The apparent refusal had community leaders ready to fight.
"If that sampling does not take place the people I work with will fight to see that happen," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight in Mountain View. "In that area in particular, people have a right to know what they are breathing."
When told about the situation on March 1, council member Jac Siegel said denying tests on the site is "near criminal in my mind. What do they have to hide?"
"If there is a problem, they damn well better do something about it," Siegel said.
If it had turned into a fight, it might have been one over principle.
"It's quite possible — based on previous crawlspace sampling — that they won't find anything," Siegel said.
Air sampling of the complex's crawlspaces in 2010 found low levels of TCE vapors — 0.2 micrograms per cubic meter. The EPA limit is 1 microgram per cubic meter, intended to protect building occupants from various TCE-related health problems, including cancer from long-term exposure and birth defects when pregnant mothers are exposed over short periods.
The situation raised an important question, Siegel said.
"It's not clear to me, if you are just talking about indoor air testing, why they have the right to refuse," Siegel said. "If I'm a tenant, why don't I have the right to bring in a suitcase or a bottle of beer or anything? I don't know why the landlord has a right to refuse."
EPA spokesman David Yogi said in an email that "EPA must either get permission from the property-owner and tenant or use CERCLA authority (through an order and/or a warrant from the court) to require access for response activities. It is EPA policy not to require access where a property owner refuses at their own home."
Yogi added that no other landlords have refused requests for indoor air testing.
Residents on Evandale Avenue between Whisman Road and Tyrella Avenue qualify for indoor air tests, as do those who live along North Whisman Road. To inquire about such tests, contact EPA Vapor Intrusion Project Manager Alana Lee at Lee.Alana@epa.gov or 415-972-3141.