Health

Expanded Exide cleanup criticized as too slow

Excavation crews measure a dump truck to see if it will fit in the driveway of a private property. After removing lead-polluted soil, crews will replace it with clean fill soil.
Excavation crews measure a dump truck to see if it will fit in the driveway of a private property. After removing lead-polluted soil, crews will replace it with clean fill soil.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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State lawmakers and Southern California officials Tuesday said the cleanup of an expanded area around the old Exide plant in Vernon is moving too slowly. 

The Department of Toxic Substances Control determined last August that a much larger area than originally identified - in a 1.7 mile radius around the former battery recycler - needed to be tested for lead contamination. But an agency spokesman told KPCC that so far crews have only tested 283 properties and cleaned five residences in the expanded zone, which includes some 10,000 homes in East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Maywood and Commerce.

In testimony before the State Assembly Committee on Environmental Safety and Toxic Materials, Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said the cleanup is underway "years earlier than is otherwise required" by the court overseeing Exide’s bankruptcy. She noted that the court gave Exide until 2018 to begin setting aside funds for cleanup work. 

When committee member Cristina Garcia (D-Bell Gardens) questioned the pace of the work, Lee responded by pointing out that her agency only has enough funds to test 15 percent of the expanded area’s properties and clean 50 of the most contaminated homes by the end of June. 

Toxic Substances Control has $8.5 million to spend on testing and cleanup through the end of June 2017. Lee said her agency will need more money than that to complete the work.

Committee chairman Luis Alejo (D-Salinas) and committee member Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) also expressed concern about how long the project is taking. Alejo calculated that at the current rate the testing will take seven years. The cleanup "needs to move faster," he said. "That is what our families deserve."

Santiago said he is worried that the amount of time the cleanup is taking has created a "lack of confidence in the process from the community."

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis attended the hearing, and argued that the state's response to possible lead contamination in the mostly low-income and Latino communities around Exide has been woeful, especially in comparison with how officials have rushed to aid residents affected by the natural gas leak in the wealthier community of Porter Ranch.

Solis called on lawmakers to allocate an additional $70 million for the budget year that begins in July. She said that would cover testing of every home in the expanded area in one year and immediate cleanup of those that need it.

In the original assessment area, which included homes closer to the plant in Maywood and Boyle Heights, the state tested 195 properties and cleaned up 186. Activists say the work in that area is still incomplete because not all of the interiors of the homes have been professionally cleaned and public areas, such as parkways, are still untested.

This story was updated on Jan. 27, 2016 to include additional details and clarify that Barbara Lee did not say that the cleanup is moving too slowly.