Residents complain of delays, confusion in getting reimbursed for Dominguez Channel costs

Dennis Taylor, 60, was among thousands sickened by elevated hydrogen sulfide levels coming from Dominguez Channel for more than seven weeks.

Earlier this month he applied for county assistance to relocate but never received help. Taylor, who suffers from bronchitis and heart-related conditions, said the stench—possibly the result of a warehouse fire that spewed debris and chemicals into the channel—caused constant headaches and nausea.

“I feel overlooked,” said Taylor, a Carson resident.

The rotten-egg smell from the channel has now subsided, but county officials are still processing hundreds of claims to reimburse residents for the cost of relocating to hotel rooms outside the area. The nearly two-month-long ordeal has also spurred lawsuits against Los Angeles County and the companies that may have been responsible—an allegation the county is still investigating.

County officials, meanwhile, have said it typically takes about three weeks for residents to receive reimbursement once they submit receipts and proof of residency, with priority given to those living closest to the channel, which runs along West Long Beach, Carson, Wilmington and other communities to the north. The area with the biggest impact was Carson near South Avalon Boulevard near the 405 Freeway exit, authorities have said.

County officials said more than 3,000 households in the proximity of the Dominguez Channel were awarded assistance to relocate. Many others, like Taylor, say they never got the help that they asked for.

County officials said they can’t comment on specific cases, but added that many claims are still being processed.

The Dominguez Channel near the 405 Freeway exit on South Avalon Boulevard and East Dominguez Street on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

‘It shouldn’t have been that hard’

Residents began reporting the stench on Oct. 3, and the county launched its relocation reimbursement program on Oct. 12. It has so far spent more than $1.5 million to pay for hotel rooms and has issued $500,000 in direct payments to reimburse residents

County officials said they received nearly 30,000 applications for help relocating, along with paying for air filters and air purifiers. Of those, more than 4,000 applicants have provided receipts and supporting documentation for reimbursement, Kerjon Lee, a spokesman for the county, said in an email.

Lee added that the county Public Works department reassigned staff “to ensure that the reimbursement requests are processed as they are submitted.”

The city of Carson also provided vouchers to about 300 people who couldn’t pay upfront and wait to be reimbursed.

The county, however, has faced criticism for delays in processing these claims, along with confusing changes to the rules.

Applying for relocation was supposed to be simple—and it was for many residents who were actually relocated or reimbursed: After residents filled out an online form, they had to wait to receive a tracking number from the county, and then county staff contacted them to book a room.

Dennis Taylor, 60, leans over a wall before being handed his cane at a sidewalk on Del Amo and Avalon boulevards on Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2021. Taylor, who lives less than two miles away from the Dominguez Channel, said that after being exposed to elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide, he experienced difficulty breathing, headaches, lightheadedness and nausea. Photo by Crystal Niebla.

People who called 211 for help, as advised by the county, were then directed to an online form or were assisted in filling it out, Lee said.

But for weeks, Long Beach resident Justine Barron did not receive a tracking number. She said she didn’t learn that she needed one until she talked with a county official at a Dominguez Channel resource site at the Carson Community Center.

Barron, 47, thought she had been rejected because she lived in Long Beach, despite having a disability, mast cell disease, that makes her sensitive to toxins in the air, and, if triggered, causes chronic migraines and seizures.

Barron, who said she suffered through chronic migraines and seizures, did finally get approved—though is still awaiting payment—for her hotel stays after advocating for weeks. Barron said she has spent about $4,000 on hotels, not including food delivery expenses since Barron is disabled.

“I pushed hard for weeks and was ignored and finally broke through,” she said. “I’m grateful for finally getting help but it shouldn’t have been that hard.”

Many residents said they were confused by the process. A Facebook group formed to help unanswered questions has more than 3,500 members, many posting about their frustrations and asking for help.

Public works, for example, updated its online reimbursement form with an extended reimbursement program date without updating its Dominguez Channel emergency landing page.

County officials have also told residents at virtual public meetings about Dominguez Channel to ignore the written reimbursement program end date, though they haven’t widely publicized that. Residents said deadlines overall kept changing.

Carson resident Erica Terrell, 33, said she was getting so much anxiety about where she and her baby would sleep for the next week that she’d call the county’s helpline, 211, every day.

From one week to the next, she said the county changed the form from allowing her and her newborn baby to live in one hotel, to new rules that would have her share a hotel room with her roommate and child because they were one household, instead of having two families in two separate rooms.

“I was constantly getting inconsistent information,” she said.

Now that the county has notified relocated residents that its reimbursement program, which includes the relocation assistance, will end on Nov. 26, the day after Thanksgiving, residents like Brandi Murdock, who left the state for the holidays, have been caught off guard. Murdock, 40, said hotel staff told her she had until Nov. 28.

“That’s a lot of pressure to put on people the day after a holiday,” Murdock said.

A screenshot of a town hall presentation of a map showing those who sought assistance with relocation to hotels or air purifiers.

Clearing air, but a scarred community

Air monitoring levels have shown a steady decline in hydrogen sulfide levels, nearly all of which are below the state-acceptable levels, which is 30 parts per billion, except for one air monitor at 213th and Chico streets.

Over the past eight days, air monitoring data shows that levels peaked on Nov. 15 at 87.98 ppb at 213th and Chico streets. On Monday, Nov. 22, levels peaked at 4.29 parts per billion, or ppb.

At its overall peak on Oct. 17, the South Coast Air Quality Management District recorded levels close to 7,000 ppb.

Since the odor began, the South Coast AQMD has received more than 4,500 complaints from Carson and surrounding communities like Gardena, Long Beach, Redondo Beach, Torrance, Wilmington and other parts of LA county.

As for Barron, the assistance that the county offered ultimately came too late to spare her from traumatic symptoms.

Still not feeling safe with the air quality, Barron moved out on Saturday and will be staying in a hotel and later an Airbnb for another two weeks before she secures a home in Florida where her father lives. At least there she’ll have more support with family around, she said.

County says relocated Carson residents should prepare to return home, but some say the Dominguez Channel is still making them sick

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Crystal Niebla is the West Long Beach reporter through the Report for America program. Philanthropic organizations pledged to cover the local donor portion of her grant-funded position with the Post. If you want to support Crystal's work, you can donate to her Report For America position at lbpost.com/support.
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