Exide communities seek wider lead testing, state says no

Barbara Lee, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, answers questions from residents Thursday about the agency's cleanup of lead contamination from the area around the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
Barbara Lee, Director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, answers questions from residents Thursday about the agency's cleanup of lead contamination from the area around the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
Elizabeth Aguilera/KPCC

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Residents from neighborhoods affected by lead contamination from the old Exide battery recycling plant asked state officials to greatly expand the soil testing area around the plant – to a radius of 4.5 miles – during a community meeting Thursday night in Commerce. But the head of the agency overseeing the cleanup said there is no money for such an expansion of the project.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control also said it could not legally accelerate the environmental review process required by state law. It did say it will put more soil testing crews in the field.

This was the first such gathering since Governor Brown approved $176.6 million for the Exide cleanup and it quickly highlighted the tensions between Toxic Substances Control and the community over how many properties are being tested and cleaned up and how quickly it is happening.

The agency said those new funds will cover testing of 10,000 properties and clean up of 2,500 properties in a 1.7 mile radius already identified around the plant.

Community members – from areas including Boyle Heights, City Terrace, East L.A., Bell Gardens, Commerce and Huntington Park - said that isn't enough and pointed to blood tests results, released by the state Department of Public Health several weeks ago, that found elevated lead levels in young kids living near the plant but also in kids living outside of the current cleanup area.

"People are being affected by this way farther out than the radius you have set out," said Mauro Barrera, who said he is a youth for environmental justice. "Why do these children have to pay with their lives for the mistake of agencies and Exide?"

Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said the agency only has money to test all of the properties and clean up about one-quarter of them.

"I don’t have funding to do that. I have funding to test up to 1.7 miles and that’s what we are going to do,” Lee said.

So far, testing has shown that nearly all of the homes around the plant will need to be cleaned up, and millions more dollars will be needed to complete the project.

The Humphreys/3rd St./Eagle/Gratian Neighborhood group in East Los Angeles presented Lee with a petition with more than 70 signatures asking the agency to expand the testing area. The neighborhood is within 2.5 miles of the plant. The signatures represent nearly every homeowner in their neighborhood, said the organization's Clara Solis.

"We want them to test our soil and if the soil is contaminated we want them to clean it up," Solis said. "Because children can possibly be getting sick if the soil is contaminated and if they are playing in it. They need to figure out how far it goes."

Mark Lopez, co-chair of the Exide community advisory board and head of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, also said the state should expand the area to include the surrounding communities. He  recalled that when the process started it was concentrated on the homes adjacent to Exide. Last summer it was expanded  and the community intends to push for more, he said.

"These are folks feeling the impacts but not looking at any remediation in the foreseeable future," Lopez said about the residents from just outside the cleanup area. "The communities surrounding Exide continue to be united even at a farther distance away."

Toxic Substances Control officials said they are focused on the current area and will be adding more crews to the soil testing phase of the project. So far the agency has been testing 50 properties a week, but it will be boosting that number to 200 a week, they said.

The actual digging up of contaminated soil is going to take longer.

Lee said the rest of the cleanup of the 1.7 mile radius around the plant could take up to a year to begin. That’s because the agency will follow the full environmental impact review process required by the California Environmental Quality Act.

Community members asked the state to explore an expedited or emergency method allowed by the law, but the officials from Toxic Substance Control said the project would not qualify for any exemptions from the way it is routinely implemented.

"We looked at the process and we don’t believe the exemptions apply," Lee said. "But we are looking at the process."

Lee did say the agency is going to re-evaluate how properties are prioritized for cleanup. Until now the agency has three priority levels, with priority one being the most contaminated, with lead levels at 1,000 parts per million or higher.  The agency has said it would bump properties with young children or pregnant women to the top of the list, but community members said they had been told that was only for those in the priority one group, not for those in priority two or priority three.

Lee said the current prioritization has not worked well and that the agency will be re-evaluating it for the next phase of cleanup but she said the exact plan has not been worked out.

"The plan for the cleanup includes the prioritization," Lee said. "It’s what we are working on right now. I know it’s frustrating that we can’t give you an absolute answer right now."

For now, the agency is going to continue to collect access agreements and test the soil as it begins the environmental process.

Commerce City Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo said the process has been confusing for families.

"I don’t feel like our children are the priority right now," Rebollo said.