Health

What's next for Exide cleanup after State Senate approves $177 million?

Teresa Marquez, president of the Boyle Heights Stakeholders Association, talks with Senator Kevin De Leon during one of many town hall meetings about the lead contamination around the former Exide battery recycling plant.
Teresa Marquez, president of the Boyle Heights Stakeholders Association, talks with Senator Kevin De Leon during one of many town hall meetings about the lead contamination around the former Exide battery recycling plant.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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The California Senate gave final approval Monday to Gov. Brown's request for $177 million in emergency funding to speed up the cleanup of lead around the former Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

Once Brown signs the legislation, the money will immediately become available. It will be used to finish testing soil for lead at up to 10,000 properties in a 1.7 mile radius around the facility and to clean up around 2,500 of the most contaminated properties over a three-year period.

But it's unclear exactly when the work will begin in earnest.

The effort will be subject to environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA.

The agency overseeing the cleanup – The Department of Toxic Substances Control - says following the CEQA process will delay the start of the expanded cleanup until spring 2017. 

Community activists and some lawmakers believe things could move more quickly than that.

"I believe they could do it in three  months if they really wanted to do it because this is a health issue, it’s an emergency," said Teresa Marquez, a member of a community panel advising the state on the cleanup. "Under CEQA if it’s an emergency and it’s a health risk they could proceed a lot faster."

There is still room to discuss how to move forward with the cleanup and maintain environmental protections, whether through CEQA or another process like the one used to clean up Brownfields, said Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) 

The key is having the community lead the way, he said.

"So long as this community is in agreement in a particular direction we are going to continue to operate in that way," said Santiago.

Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee has said she is focused on pushing the process forward.

The funding bills include provisions for testing and cleanup, job training for cleanup crews and a requirement that the state try to recover the costs from Exide and other responsible parties. The money is a loan from the state's general fund.

Cleanup of a residential property includes digging out 18 inches or more of soil, trucking it out and filling in with clean soil.

There is no safe level of lead, especially for kids. It can damage their nervous system and slow growth and development. It’s been linked to learning and behavior problems as well as hearing and speech impairments.

Gov. Brown requested the Exide funding in February. The approval process stalled for a time because community groups objected to Brown's desire to waive the CEQA review as a way to expedite matters. He ultimately relented and agreed to include CEQA review as part of the project.

Brown requested the money after critics said he was paying far more attention to the natural  gas leak in relatively affluent Porter Ranch than he was to the lead contamination from Exide’s battery recycling operation – which was in mainly working-class neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Commerce and East Los Angeles.

Senate President ProTem Kevin De León (D-Los Angeles), who authored one of the two companion bills related to the governor's request, said he had been talking to Brown for some time about how to address the Exide contamination when the Porter Ranch leak occurred. And he says the nature of the problems at Exide may have been part of the reason for the different response.

"A lot of folks have not focused on the environmental injustice of Exide," he said. "Unlike Porter Ranch, the unfortunate tragic leak of methane that happened overnight, [lead contamination from Exide] is something that has been going on for decades so it’s not new, it’s a slow moving car crash with really severe consequences."

Exide Technologies operated for three decades on a temporary permit with little oversight. It smelted batteries until last year, when the state ordered it to shut down and test and clean up the properties closest to the plant. Crews have cleaned up nearly 200 homes.

Last August, additional soil testing showed up to 10,000 properties could be contaminated with lead.

Once the money allocated by the governor is spent, Toxic Substances Control is still going to need more to clean up the rest of the homes that need it, experts say - perhaps more than $200 million in additional funds.

Of the more than 1,000 properties that have been tested so far, nearly all of them need their soil replaced

While the state plans to go after Exide Technologies for the cost of the cleanup, it’s unclear how that process will play out, since Toxic Substances Control is still figuring out how to prove the lead in the community originated at Exide.