Environment & Science

Soil sampling in Maywood, Bell marks new phase in Exide lead pollution investigation

Crews removed soil from remediation areas near Exide last year; now they're investigating a wider area, as much as 1.7 miles away from the Vernon battery recycler.
Crews removed soil from remediation areas near Exide last year; now they're investigating a wider area, as much as 1.7 miles away from the Vernon battery recycler.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Crews working for state toxics regulators on Thursday will begin testing soil for lead pollution at homes in Maywood and Bell following a meeting Wednesday night at which neighbors of the now closed Exide battery recycling plant criticized the state for a slow and confusing cleanup process.

“We certainly have a focus of moving quickly now to sample and prioritize properties for cleanup,” said Barbara Lee, the director of the Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Lee presented a still-evolving plan for testing and cleanup of properties potentially impacted by lead pollution, as many as 10,000, including the Maywood homes. “The plan that we’re sharing[…] does this in a way that holds Exide accountable and makes sure that they pay for the contamination they created,” Lee said.

At the meeting, toxics regulators announced they would open up an online signup form for residents within 1.7 miles of Exide’s plant to request sampling. They’'re planning to screen with an x-ray fluorescence analyzer, a hand-held device that can yield results immediately.

Officials from both the DTSC and the South Coast Air Quality Management District, which regulated emissions from the plant, answered questions and fielded often angry comments from several dozen community members. It was the first Exide-related community meeting in Commerce, a city surprised in August to learn that lead pollution from the nearby Vernon battery smelter may have contaminated properties almost two miles away. 

Commerce mayor pro-tem Tina Baca Del Rio has emerged as a strong critic of regulators’ response, calling the process by which the state was deciding on remediation “ridiculous.” At Wednesday’s meeting, she vowed to spend city money to test for lead because she said she didn’t want to wait months for a decision on response from the state.

"We just recently found out a few months ago we’re affected. To what extent we don’t know. But because of that, we know there is some effect, we are not waiting," she said. "We as a city are going to go ahead and test and not wait for somebody else to come in and test six, eight, nine, twelve months down the road."

Today’s soil tests are the first in an expanded area identified as at risk by state toxics regulators.

Lee insisted that residents in the area would inform the nature of the cleanup, and she pointed out that lead pollution could be attributed to multiple sources. “There’s lead based paint on the structures that’s contaminating the property as well,” she said. “So even after we’ve cleaned up the site that contamination remains, that exposure remains, and the property eventually becomes re-contaminated over time just from the paint on the structures.”

But Lee said that DTSC would continue to investigate the connection between the Vernon plant and lead pollution. “We are looking at a number of ways to tie the contamination that we see to Exide, to prove that it is in fact their contamination,” she said. 

This story has been updated to reflect updated information from the Department of Toxic Substances Control about the location of today's testing.