Residents question why Exide's contamination cleanup included yards but not sidewalk strips

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The bright green sod in Noemi Cruz’s Boyle Heights front yard is new. It was installed a few months ago to replace the lead-contaminated soil that workers dug up and carted away as part of a massive environmental cleanup that’s been happening in this neighborhood, near Olympic Boulevard and Indiana Street, since last summer.

Cruz’s home on La Puerta Street is among those authorities identified as contaminated by the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon. Cruz's property and nearly 200 others nearby have been cleaned up so far. But Cruz and other residents here remain concerned about strips of city-owned land, situated between the street and sidewalk, that were left untouched. 

Throughout the neighborhood, these sidewalk strips — known as 'parkways' — remain a source of concern for neighbors here. Whether barren and dusty, such as the one in front of Cruz’s house, or planted with grass and trees, none was included in the excavation and cleanup of soil surrounding the homes here in Boyle Heights and in nearby Maywood.

"All the people I know are complaining about this. How is it possible...they cleaned the inside of the yard but not the parkway?" Cruz asked. "It’s the same dirt, the same contamination. We are worried about the kids."

For decades, Exide smelted used car batteries at the Vernon location. The work sent lead contamination into the air, which settled in the nearby neighborhoods.  Last year the plant was shut down and the state ordered Exide to pay for the neighborhood clean-up.

TIMELINE: Exide's run-ins with regulators

These days, Cruz keeps her 3-year-old daughter off the parkway. And she also tries, often unsuccessfully, to keep her gray, shaggy dog from tracking parkway soil back in to the yard and house. 

"People try not to step there,” she said about the dusty parkway. "My husband is planning to clean it and put down cement or pavers because it produces a lot of dust."

Cruz’s neighbors also question why crews didn't clean up the parkways. As winter approaches, they worry about the effect of rain and fear that lead-contaminated mud and water could flow into their cleaned up yards, recontaminating them. 

Exposure to high levels of lead --  especially over a long period of time — can cause kidney and brain damage. Pregnant women and children are most vulnerable.

"My concern is that there are little ones and what they do is they walk in the yards and they play on the outside,” said neighborhood resident Olivia Salazar. "They’re always walking on the grass and there are a lot of kids around here."

Homes First

So far, the state agency overseeing the decontamination -- the Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) -- has announced no further cleanup plans for the neighborhood. 

When asked why the parkways were not included in the decontamination of the nearly 200 properties, DTSC officials told KPCC that their first priority was to clean the contaminated yards surrounding those properties and city and county land was not included in the plan. The parkways, the agency said, will get cleaned up if necessary but the agency did not say if it will be testing the parkways, when it will determine if they need to be cleaned up and how long it would take if it needs to be done.

It’s a sort of triage approach that University of Southern California professor Lisa Schweitzer says is fairly typical. 

"The highest level of remediation usually go into places where they’re expecting people to occupy that space for long periods of time," says Schweitzer, an urban environmentalist who teaches at USC's Sol Price School of Public Policy. "That’s one of the reasons they prioritize residences."

Cleaning up the strip of property near sidewalks, she says, poses less urgency.

"Those are actually less of a priority because of the assumption that people don’t occupy those spaces the same way they do their homes and their backyards," she said.

Double Whammy

But those who’ve gone through the headaches of this decontamination process say that staggered approach makes no sense in Boyle Heights and Maywood.

During the recent cleanup, some residents say they, along with their pets, moved into hotels or stayed with relatives and friends. Throughout the cleanup, they said, streets were blocked by construction vehicles and contaminated dust choked the air.

Schweitzer agrees that making residents go through that process a second time seems like poor planning.

"It’s not fun to have machines out and have your neighborhood dug up. Most of our streets were not designed to have equipment on them, it blocks traffic and it’s hard to park," she said. "There are a lot of other reasons why it’s kind of irritating that it didn’t get done."

Ofelia Arambula, a resident of the neighborhood for more than 50 years, says an even greater concern for her is how a second cleanup can happen safely. She worries that if and when crews return to decontaminate the parkways, there will be no way for them to avoid stirring up lead-contaminated soil. And that, she fears, could recontaminate the neighborhood’s newly cleaned up yards and gardens.

"They should have finished everything," a frustrated Arambula said of the crews sent to cleanup the neighborhood yards. "Now they are going to have to come back?"

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