California unveils long-awaited Exide cleanup plan

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State regulators Thursday unveiled their long-awaited plan to remove lead-contaminated soil from some 2,500 properties near the former Exide Technologies battery recycling plant in Vernon.

The project will be "the largest cleanup of its kind ever in California," said Barbara Lee, director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control. The agency plans to hire a contractor by the end of August and expects the work to begin sometime after that, said Mohsen Nazemi, deputy director of Toxic Substance Control's Brownfields and Environmental Restoration Program.

The plan comes a little more than a year after Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill authorizing a $176.6 million loan of state funds to greatly expand the testing and cleanup of homes around Exide.

The money is designed to pay for the sampling of soil from more than 10,000 properties in a 1.7-mile radius around the shuttered facility, and the cleanup of the 2,500 most contaminated.

The agency has collected soil samples from more than 8,000 of the properties, and it has lab results on 7,000 of them. Almost all of them had elevated concentrations of lead, but because it only has funding to clean up 2,500, Toxic Substances Control is prioritizing those with the highest amounts of lead.

The state uses 80 parts per million as the trigger for removing lead from residential properties. Given the cash shortage, the agency will give first priority to homes with a representative lead concentration of 400 ppm or higher, which is the U.S. EPA's cleanup trigger. (More than 5,000 properties are in the 80-400 ppm range.)

The state will prioritize homes with less than 400 ppm if they have at least one sample of 1,000 ppm or higher. So far 56 properties fall into this category, said Nazemi. 

"We have not backed away from the 80 parts per million" residential standard, said Lee, adding that it remains the agency's goal to clean "down to a level of 80 parts per million." But the department's ability to do that "depends entirely on available funding," she said.

Crews will remove soil from daycare and child care centers with a concentration of 80 ppm or higher.

Representative lead concentration is similar to an average, but it's derived through a statistical method that yields a number that is "more health protective than a simple average," according to Toxic Substances Control.

"I know that everybody would like everything to happen faster than it does, but if you look at these cleanups across the nation, what [Toxic Substances Control] has been able to do in a year's time is really extraordinary," said Lee.

Toxic Substances Control says it will offer temporary relocation to families during the soil cleanup and interior cleaning afterwards. The agency will also host a series of community meetings over the next month to answer residents' questions about the cleanup process.

During its three decades of operation, the Exide plant spewed chemicals into the air, including lead, which settled into nearby yards, playgrounds and gardens. In a deal to avoid federal criminal charges, Exide agreed to close the facility in 2015.

Earlier drafts of the cleanup plan had also prioritized the cleanup of homes with small children and pregnant women, but that provision was removed based on community feedback.

Jill Johnston, assistant professor of preventative medicine at USC and a member of the state-created Community Advisory Group on the Exide cleanup, said that change was "positive and helps to provide more health protection for the community," since pregnant women or kids could later visit or move into homes with contaminated soil.

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