Exide: LA County crews begin testing soil for lead in Commerce

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis visits work crews testing soil in Commerce for lead contamination from the former Exide battery recycling plant in nearby Vernon.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis visits work crews testing soil in Commerce for lead contamination from the former Exide battery recycling plant in nearby Vernon.
Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

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Los Angeles County crews began testing soil at homes in Commerce Monday as part of an effort to bolster the state's efforts to cleanup lead and other toxic contamination from the former Exide battery recycling plant.

This is the first time the County Department of Public Health is testing soil for lead related to Exide. Until now the state Department of Toxic Substances Control has been solely managing the process around the shuttered Vernon plant.

Members of the community have criticized the agency for what they say has been the slow pace of the cleanup. 

Responding to the local frustration, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors last fall kicked in $2 million to help with the effort. The money will be used to test a total of 500 homes. And after years of silence on the issue, Governor Jerry Brown earlier this month asked the state legislature to spend nearly $177 million for expedited testing and cleanup around the former Exide plant - the bill is before an Assembly committee.

State officials say they will eventually go after Exide for the cost of the cleanup.

As she observed crews working on Hepworth Street, L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said the county and the Toxic Substances Control are working together  – county crews will share test data with the state agency.

"That assessment material will be handed over to [Toxic Substances Control] and they’ll make their decision to prioritize one, two or three," said Solis, whose father worked in a battery recycling plant when she was growing up. "And hopefully the priority one’s will get the most attention right away."

Toxic Substances Control welcomes the county's assist, a spokesman said. So far the agency has had less than $10 million budgeted for testing and cleanup through mid-2017.

Toxic Substances Control has set three "Priority Categories" for lead cleanup:

  • Priority 1: yards with soil lead levels over 1,000 parts per million.
  • Priority 2: yards with soil lead levels between 400 parts per million and 1,000 parts per million.
  • Priority 3: yards with soil lead levels between 80 ppm and 400 ppm.

In Commerce, testing each property takes up to three hours. Twelve crews arrived Monday with silver dirt bowls, camping stoves, frying pans and x-ray guns. They will take 15 samples on each property, and more if there is a specific children’s play area.

"They take the auger and go down 3 inches and pull out some soil and then they start to test it with a moisture meter and it will take a moisture content," explained county environmental health manager Charlene Contreras, who is overseeing the testing. "If it’s too wet the XRF can’t read it, so they’ll have to cook it to dry it out and then they’ll use the XRF."

XRF guns can identify lead and other toxins in the soil. The crews will cover around 40 homes a day; they plan to be done within two weeks.

Residents in the neighborhood near Washington and Atlantic Boulevards welcomed the crews.

Grace and Everett Potvin worry about their  2-year-old grandson Sean, who lives with them in their home on Leonis Street. The toddler had brain surgery shortly after birth and is developmentally delayed. His family wonders why.

"How long has it been, why didn’t they figure this out earlier?" asked Grace Potvin. "They should have taken care of it right away."

The matter has gotten more attention recently after Toxic Substances Control announced last August the contamination zone was larger than originally thought and could impact up to 10,000 properties and take years to test and cleanup.

Since then the natural gas leak in Porter Ranch, which is more affluent, prompted several local and state officials to compare what they considered the slow response to Exide with the quick state response to the leak.

If lawmakers approve Brown’s funding proposal, the money would be used to test all 10,000 properties around the plant and clean up 2,500 to 3,000 of the most contaminated by the end of June 2017, according to Toxic Substances Control.

The state shut Exide down in 2015. So far, the state agency has tested 572 properties and cleaned 198.