Gov. Brown proposes $177 million for Exide lead contamination cleanup

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After years of silence, Gov. Jerry Brown Wednesday asked California state lawmakers to spend nearly $177 million for expedited testing and cleanup of lead contamination in communities around the former Exide plant in Vernon.

"This Exide battery recycling facility has been a problem for a very long time," Brown said in  a statement. "With this funding plan, we're opening a new chapter that will help protect the community and hold Exide responsible."

Brown laid out his $176.6 million plan in a letter to the chairs of the State Senate and Assembly budget and appropriations committees.

In the letter Brown said the money "will be supported by a loan from the General Fund." The loan would allow the Department of Toxic Substances Control to expedite the cleanup process around Exide and then the state will go after the contaminator for the money that was spent.

Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon (D-Los Angeles) praised the governor's move, and said in a statement that he will co-sponsor "urgency legislation" next week "to expedite delivery of the funds and work closely with the Administration on community outreach to determine risk and get the cleanup done as quickly as possible."

If approved, the funds will be used to test up to 10,000 properties and clean up 2,500 to 3,000 of the most contaminated homes by the end of June 2017, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the cleanup.

L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement that the city's sanitation bureau will work with Toxic Substances Control, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and community leaders "to help advance testing and clean up." The mayor said he is asking the departments of street services and planning "to expedite permits for the clean-up," and added that the city will launch a "public education effort to ensure that more residents are tested for lead contamination."

For years, some in the east Los Angeles community have been calling on Brown to get involved. Last November, community activists showed up when Brown attended an event in Hawaiian Gardens, chanting, "Governor Brown, clean up our town."

Mark Lopez, who heads East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, said Brown has finally heard their calls for his attention.

"Though this is not all of the cleanup funding we will need, this is the next step in the long road to justice on this issue," Lopez said. "Governor Brown is sending a clear message that despite the state's failure to ensure our communities were protected from Exide, the cleanup will be a priority for the state and Exide will be held liable."

Local and state officials had become more vocal in recent months, saying the cleanup of the expanded area was moving too slowly. Several compared the slow response to Exide to the quick response of the state to the natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, where Gov. Brown visited with residents.

Assembly Speaker-elect Anthony Rendon (D-Paramount), who represents some of the areas around the old facility, called the new funding a "victory."

“While some of the toxic damage has already taken a toll on our communities, this funding will go a long way to restoring the safety and quality of life for the residents we represent," he said in a statement.

LA County Supervisor Hilda Solis said she was surprised and heartened by the news. She's been meeting with residents for months in the impacted area and had got the county to commit some funds to help test. Several weeks ago she was in Sacramento asking the state for millions more.

"This will help provide immediate relief to thousands who were impacted for the last several decades, exposed to highly toxic material," she said. "we know it will cost a lot more but nonetheless this is good news for our community."

The governor's proposal is "a great start," said Liza Tucker of Consumer Watchdog, one of Exide's and Toxic Substances Control's fiercest critics.

Noting Brown's intention to "vigorously pursue Exide and other responsible parties" to secure reimbursement for the testing and cleanup, Tucker predicted that "trying to recoup that money ... is going to be a hard slog."

She said "it would have been far easier if [Toxic Substances Control] had done its job in the first place by following state law that compels them to collect the money up front for cleanups as a condition of operation."

Barbara Lee, who heads Toxic Substances Control, said the money is going to help the agency determine where the lead came from.

"The funding also will allow us to do a series of specialized tests and analysis that we will use to identify the sources of the contamination and hold Exide and any other potentially responsible party accountable for the contamination they created," she said.  "That would include seeking cost recovery for the work done."

Solis and Tucker believed public outcry over the state's different responses to Exide and Porter Ranch helped persuade Brown to act. 

"There shouldn’t be two separate Americas in Southern California, one in Porter Ranch and one in East Los Angeles," said Solis, who has been meeting with residents for months in the area around Exide.

Brown's proposal acknowledges that "people really are all equal," said Tucker. "It doesn’t matter whether you are more wealthy as the people around Porter Ranch are, or less wealthy, or not white. You basically deserve equal treatment when it comes to toxic contamination."

Toxic Substances Control said public criticism over the state's handling of Exide did not factor into Brown's initiative. Agency officials said they had been working on the funding proposal with the governor’s office for months after it became clear the contamination area was much larger than originally thought.

That was last August, when Toxic Substance Control said a much larger area than just right around the plant — up to a 1.7-mile radius around the former plant — needed to be tested. At that time crews had only tested 283 properties and cleaned five in the expanded zone. Up to 10,000 homes are within the perimeter of the zone, which includes East Los Angeles, Boyle Heights, Maywood and Commerce.

Toxic Substances Control insists the cleanup is moving faster than required by law, but community members have criticized the process as too slow.

The agency has said it has $8.5 million to spend on testing and cleanup through the end of June 2017. It said last month it could test 15 percent of the expanded area and clean 50 of the most contaminated properties by the end of this June.

Last month, Solis called on the state to earmark $70 million in the new budget to test all the properties within one year and clean up those that need it.

The state cleaned up 186 properties in the original assessment area, closer to the plant, but activists say the work on those homes is incomplete because not all had their interiors professionally cleaned, and parkways — the strips of land between the sidewalk and the street - remain untested.

This story has been updated.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Gov. Jerry Brown's last name. KPCC regrets the error.

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