The state plans to significantly expand the scope of the cleanup of lead-tainted soil from properties around the former Exide plant in Vernon, but its efforts to date have been incomplete, as many homeowners have passed up the opportunity to have professionals also clean the interiors of their homes.
Of the 174 property owners in Boyle Heights and Maywood who have had soil removed from their yards, only 44 have requested the accompanying interior cleanup, according to the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the effort. The operation began after the agency found elevated levels of lead in the soil of homes around Exide's now shuttered battery recycling facility.
Interviews with residents whose yards were the subjects of remediation, along with a review of the letter offering an interior cleaning, suggest that at least one of the reasons so few have taken that step is miscommunication.
"The agency is not doing a good enough job in conveying that we are cleaning up poison from homes and not just dust," says Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
Because dirt contaminated with lead can easily make its way from a yard to a living room, the state's remediation operation includes a free cleaning of the affected homes with a HEPA vacuum. HEPA stands for High Efficiency Particulate Air; the vaccum is an industrial strength machine outfitted with special filters that can trap tiny particles.
But a number of residents interviewed in Maywood and Boyle Heights did not understand what type of service was being offered.
A "voucher for a maid service"
Maldonado Raul of Boyle Heights had his yard cleaned, but he says he did not follow up on the offer for the interior work because he already has a woman who cleans his house.
"No no, I don’t want [another] lady who comes and cleans inside the house," says Raul, noting that he also passed on the offer to clean the interiors of the two rental units he owns on his street.
Reiser Torres of Maywood says his mom, who owns their house, had a similar reaction.
"My mother declined it," he says. "She said it would just be vacuuming or whatever and we could do it ourselves."
A lot of people thought they were being offered "a voucher for a maid service," says Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice. "So I think for a lot of residents, especially from the communities we come from, folks take pride in their homes and feel like something like that is not necessary."
Toxic Substances Control would only provide written answers to questions about the interior cleanups. The agency says its officials informed property owners about the interior remediation in two separate meetings, telling them they would be getting specific information in the mail.
Some, like the Achig family of Maywood, did get the message. Monserrat Achig, whose parents own the home, says after a crew replaced soil from the yard, she arranged to have the interior work done, because state officials had recommended it.
"It was just one guy who came in and he did the vacuuming and he did all of the rooms and it took about an hour and a half maybe," she says.
But the Achigs are in the minority, and Lopez also blames the letter sent to homeowners.
"They didn't even spell it out"
The letter is not from the Department of Toxic Substances Control; it's from a cleaning service and offers a "professional cleaning…at no cost to you." It mentions a "HEPA vacuuming" of floors, drapes, blinds, windowsills and furniture, but it does not explain what HEPA is.
"It’s an acronym and they didn’t even spell it out," Lopez says. "This is ridiculous."
Lopez believes the letter looks like a typical solicitation that routinely shows up in everyone's mailboxes. He imagines property owners interpreting the letter as meaning, "They are going to come and clean my house and sell me a vacuum."
A number of Maywood residents who had their yards cleaned were unaware that the interior work was an option. Like many in the area, they are renters, so they never saw the letter offering property owners the HEPA cleaning.
"I have a daughter so that is my concern, I would have liked ... a deep cleaning," says one renter, who asked to be identified only as Ms. Flores.
Carmelo Felipe, another Maywood renter, says he would have liked an interior cleanup too.
"We would have to notify the owner and see what they say," he says. "We can’t get involved with this property."
Efforts to reach Flores' and Felipe’s landlords were unsuccessful.
A County Supervisor weighs in
Community activists are pressing state regulators to include renters in the process. So is the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. On Tuesday, the board approved a $2 million outlay, in part to help with outreach to Exide's neighbors.
Supervisor Hilda Solis was behind the effort.
"They have not provided sufficient tools and information to inform the residents that they must be diligent in cleaning up the inside of their homes," says Solis.
The Department of Toxic Substances Control has also come under criticism for its handling of the yard cleanups. Crews did not remove soil from the parkways between the sidewalk and the curb.
Toxic Substances Control will convene a public meeting Wednesday night to discuss its plan for more sampling, which could result in the cleanup of thousands more homes. The agency announced in August that it may have to drastically expand the remediation operation after additional soil sampling found elevated lead levels in a wider ring around the Exide plant.
A spokesman says he doesn't know if Toxic Substances Control will change the way it notifies residents about interior remediation in the next phase of the project.