Making a public park out of a Superfund site is a rarity. If Maywood, a city in the old industrial belt of South Los Angeles County, ultimately succeeds in creating a 7.3-acre park along the Los Angeles River, the result would be inspirational: A working class city will have turned one of the nation’s most contaminated sites into a greenfield.

For the time being, however, the proposed conversion of poisoned land to playground looks more like a cruel irony than a cause for celebration. To expunge the witch’s brew of carcinogens and heavy metals in the soil and drinking water, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a technology known as vapor extraction. This method involves heating the soil up to 1200 degrees Fahrenheit, which volatilizes much of the crud into the air. Opponents say the method is inappropriate for a city that already suffers from very poor air quality. With 28,000 people living in a city a square mile in size, Maywood is the most densely populated city in California, according to Trust for Public Land.

“Nobody knows what happens when you heat up those chemicals. There’s been no study,” said Councilman-elect Felipe Aguirre, referring to the unique cocktail of chromium, arsenic, THC and vinyl chloride, among the 29 identified “hazmats” in the soil of a former chemical plant, an adhesive factory, and their neighbors. The site ranks high on the list of priority Superfund sites.

The issue grew so controversial, in fact, that local voters ousted Mayor Sam Pena in November, electing two anti-vapor extraction candidates — Aguirre and Sergio Calderon — while returning to office incumbent councilman Thomas Martin, another foe of the remediation process. The three councilmen are now the majority of the City Council, and they are looking for ways to convince EPA to use a less hazardous method of remediation.

Aguirre said the city was consulting with the National Academy of Sciences to find an alternative technology to clean up the Superfund site. But, he added, “It’s difficult to get EPA to change its mind after it has approved a plan.”

“We want a park, but we want the area cleaned up first,” Aguirre said.

In questioning the proposed method of remediation, Aguirre cited a clean up project in the nearby city of Alhambra. Under orders from the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, Southern California Edison has attempted to clean up a similarly contaminated site in Alhambra using the same technology proposed for Maywood. “They said it would take six months,” Aguirre said. “It’s taken three years.”

To understand why feelings run high in Maywood, one need realize that the Superfund site is only one of several problems that qualify the city as one of the most environmentally messed up areas in Southern California.

A short list of existing conditions gives meaning to the word “impacts.” An enormous intermodal shipping container yard, the second largest in Southern California, is located to the north, near Commerce. A Dunn & Edwards paint plant operates across the street from one of the city’s two small parks. An incinerator operates across the city border in Commerce. The 710 Freeway, which carries an endless parade of antiquated, particulate-spewing diesel trucks, is located directly to the east, across the concrete-line Los Angeles River. The city’s aquifers, which are the source of its drinking water, are sullied by a toxic plume.

“Maywood is a hotbed of contamination,” concluded Aguirre.

Fashioning a new park in Maywood has been a long-time goal of Trust for Public Land, the national organization best known for preserving large wilderness areas. In recent years, the trust has become increasingly active in helping create parks in cramped, inner-city neighborhoods.

The Los Angeles River has been a particular focus for the trust. To date, the trust has helped purchase land at three different points along the channelized waterway, according to Larry Kaplan, the trust’s Los Angeles field director. Perhaps the trust’s most remarkable coup came during 2001 with the purchase of 32 acres of former industrial land in downtown Los Angeles known as the Cornfields, which had been targeted for development by the county’s largest developer, Majestic Realty (see CP&DR In Brief, April 2001; Economic Development, September 2000, January 2000). The environmentalist’s victory was all the more remarkable for defying the wishes of then-Mayor Richard Riordan.

In Maywood, the trust conveyed a total of five acres in 2001 and 2003 toward the creation of the future Maywood River Park, while also helping the city and its consultants design the park, according to Kaplan.

Both the city and land trust are contributing another stretch of land for what the trust hopes will become a continuous greenbelt extending, in a giant Y shape, south along the riverfront from the San Fernando Valley and Pasadena through some of the poorest cities in Los Angeles County until the river empties into the ocean at the Port of Long Beach.

Aside from all of that environmental and political drama, the park itself might seem an anticlimax. In the scheme by AAE Inc. of Brea, the park is designed for active play, while minimizing the space devoted to purely esthetic items like flowerbeds or waterfalls and the like. The majority of the trees are arranged to provide a visual and sound screen from surrounding streets, with a large soccer field and basketball court in the middle, as well a tot lot, riparian areas with native flora and picnic areas.

The park does seem low on trees (at least to this landscape non-expert) although existing trees would obviously grow out. The park does not seem to provide anything for skateboarders, which will not prevent skateboarders from rocketing everywhere. In all, the park looks like a very good place to escape the heat-sink of the city. And at a time when so many brownfields are returned to service by being “encapsulated” — that is, paved over — it is good to see a very dirty site returned to grass. If we can accomplish this feat without further searing people’s lungs, all the better.