Health

Environmental review will delay expanded Exide cleanup about a year

Crews removed lead-tainted soil from this Boyle Heights home in 2014.
Crews removed lead-tainted soil from this Boyle Heights home in 2014.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

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Under a timetable released Thursday by state regulators, the expanded cleanup of lead from homes around the former Exide battery recycling plant won't begin until next May at the earliest.

Community members renewed their calls to move the process forward more quickly, but Department of Toxic Substances Control Director Barbara Lee said the current schedule is already ambitious.

Officials presented the timetable at a public hearing in East Los Angeles called by the State Assembly's Environmental Safety & Toxic Materials Committee.

According to the plan, Toxic Substances Control will work from now until the end of October to prepare a draft environmental impact report for the project. The public will then have a 45-day period to comment on the review, and the agency will work from next January through the end of April to prepare a response to the comments.

In May, it will prepare a final environmental impact report and cleanup plan. If all goes according to plan, the expanded cleanup could begin in late May or June.

The schedule is following the requirements of the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, as stipulated in emergency legislation Gov. Jerry Brown signed in April approving an infusion of $176.6 million to test for and remove lead from thousands of homes in a broader, 1.7-mile radius around the former plant.

Crews have already removed lead from 226 properties close to the now shuttered Exide facility. They are testing for elevated levels of lead in the expanded area, but they can't remove lead from those homes until the state issues the final environmental impact report.

A total of 1,859 properties have been tested so far, according to Toxic Substances Control.

A number of community members echoed the plea of Exide community advisory group member Teresa Marquez, who asked if the regulators could comply with CEQA more quickly.

"If you look at CEQA it does give you areas where, if people are in danger, if children are in danger, that could be expedited and still follow the process," Marquez said.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles), who is not a member of the environmental safety committee, asked Lee if her agency would be willing "to explore different tools that can move us forward a little quicker."

Lee made it clear that Toxic Substances Control is not going to consider speeding things up.

"We heard from community members and representatives who told us they did not want a waiver under CEQA or a modified CEQA review, so we are taking every step to ensure we do the comprehensive CEQA review that has been requested of us as efficiently and as quickly as we can," she said.

Activists had insisted that Gov. Brown - who initially wanted to waive CEQA for the Exide emergency funding bill - include it in the legislation.

According to Toxic Substances Control, the $176.6 million will pay to test up to 10,000 properties for lead in the 1.7 mile radius around the former plant, and to clean up 2,500 homes with the highest levels. The legislation providing the money - which is a loan from the general fund - requires the state to seek reimbursement from Exide for the cost of the cleanup.

So far, soil testing has revealed that nearly all of the homes around the plant will need to be cleaned up, which involves digging up 18 inches or more of dirt and replacing it with clean soil.

Lead is a neurotoxin and is especially dangerous for children. It has been linked to damaged nervous systems, slow growth and development, learning and behavior problems and hearing and speech impairments. There is no safe level of lead for children.

Originally the state required soil testing and cleanup only in neighborhoods adjacent to the plant. It expanded the area to a 1.7-mile radius last August.

Activists, residents and others Thursday renewed their calls for Toxic Substances Control to enlarge the testing area beyond the enlarged zone.

The agency should test soil "over a much wider area than 1.7 miles," said Dr. Brian Johnston, chair of the emergency medicine department at White Memorial Hospital. He pointed to a 2010 study by the South Coast Air Quality Management District that "showed a toxic cloud from Exide that stretched from the Palos Verdes Peninsula to Altadena."

Advisory group member Marquez said the soil at her Boyle Heights home, which sits outside the 1.7-mile zone, had lead levels at over 1,000 parts per million, much higher than the state's action level of 80 parts per million. The property was included in Toxic Substances Control's random testing last year to determine whether it needed to expand beyond its initial cleanup area.

Lee has previously said there is no money to push the cleanup beyond the expanded area.

Toxic Substances Control has been testing 50 properties a week in the larger area, currently it is testing 135 a week and it will be upping that number to 200 a week in the coming weeks, Lee has said. 

Before Gov. Brown requested the Exide funding in February, activists had complained for months that the cleanup effort was underfunded and moving too slowly. Critics also 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 operation – which was near mainly working-class neighborhoods of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Commerce and East Los Angeles.

Exide Technologies operated for three decades on a temporary permit with little oversight. It smelted batteries until last year, when it agreed to shut down to avoid federal criminal charges. The company also agreed to pay for the testing and cleanup of the properties closest to the plant. 

Once the emergency funding has been exhausted, experts say Toxic Substances Control is going to need more money to clean up the rest of the homes that need it - perhaps more than $200 million.