Exide: State to begin immediate cleanup after new report of lead contamination (Updated)

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At a community meeting Thursday, California regulators announced that they'll begin an immediate clean-up of homes contaminated by lead. But the announcement did little to placate neighbors to the former Exide lead battery recycling plant in Vernon.

The news comes nearly a week after the Department of Toxic Substances Control revealed it had found lead contamination at more homes around the shuttered facility. 

Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee announced the state will fund $7 million in clean up and additional testing, and regulators will begin testing homes whose tests reveal lead levels above 1,000 parts per million. 

But she also acknowledged that the new money, borrowed from budgeted cleanups at other hazardous sites around the state, only covers some costs.

“We do have 7 million dollars today that we didn’t have yesterday,” she said. “It’s not all of the money we need. We know it’s not all of the money we need.”

And while Lee said cleanup would be immediate, she said that means she intends to bring a cleanup plan back to the Exide advisory committee next month at a regular meeting. 

Criticism about the pace of that response came Thursday night from residents including Terry Cano, whose home was tested in the expanded area around the plant. 

"Why am I hearing about a plan to make another plan when a year ago you already had a plan?" she asked.  

Lee cautioned that DTSC had yet not determined where the lead had come from, while other state officials at the meeting emphasized the need for urgent remediation was clear. 

"As a medical person, I care about lead. I don't care where it comes from," Gina Solomon, Deputy Secretary for Science and Health at California Environmental Protection Agency told an exasperated audience.

Whether in air or soil, lead pollution is harmful to human health, particularly the health of children and pregnant women. It can lead to learning disabilities and birth defects.

Solomon advised residents to wipe their feet thoroughly before entering their homes, and to cover bare dirt in and around their yards to minimize exposure for children.  

Lee's announcement of additional money came at the Huntington Park Community Center, during a regular meeting of an advisory committee to the Exide cleanup process. It was the first opportunity for the public to hear about preliminary test results that showed that as many as 10,000 homes within two miles of the plant could have elevated levels of lead in the soil. 

Community activists and neighbors to Exide aren’t alone in wanting state regulators to move faster on cleaning up the expanded area around the plant. Supervisor Hilda Solis now says the DTSC should appeal to Governor Jerry Brown for more support.

For decades, the plant smelted used car batteries, sending lead contamination into the air. Exide is already on the hook for cleaning up more than 200 homes in neighborhoods just north and south of the plant.

Exide settled criminal allegations with the U.S. Department of Justice in March, and settled environmental violations with the DTSC last November. Under the terms of those deals, the company has set up a $9 million trust fund for cleaning up lead-contaminated soil from 219 homes. The bankrupt company also has set aside more than $38 million for closure and remediation of its property at 2700 Indiana Avenue in Vernon. 

Exide officials have said they do not believe the Vernon facility was the source for newly disclosed lead contamination.

This story has been updated.

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