Consumer advocates and community activists say the state Department of Toxic Substances Control's long-awaited plan to remove lead from more than 2,000 properties around the former Exide battery recycling plant doesn't do enough to protect residents from lead exposure.
They're concerned that kids' health is being jeopardized because there is not enough state funding to clean up several thousand more contaminated properties near the Vernon facility.
"Somebody is definitely going to be getting the short end of the stick in this thing," says Liza Tucker, who tracks environmental issues for Consumer Watchdog.
The plan was released Thursday, 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 knows that they're leaving thousands of homes, thousands of families, to fend for ourselves," says Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice.
California regulators use 80 parts per million as the trigger for removing lead from residential properties. Given the cash shortfall, 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.)
Toxic Substances Control's strategy "unfortunately means that many children will continue to play in backyard soils containing unsafe levels of lead – a highly poisonous neurotoxin," says Jaimini Parekh, an attorney for Communities for a Better Environment. "[Toxic Substances Control] fell asleep at the wheel, and failed to regulate this bad actor, and now the children of southeast Los Angeles are paying the price."
Activists have sharply criticized the state toxics agency for failing to crack down on Exide much sooner than it did.
Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis says she is "deeply disheartened" by the final cleanup plan.
Toxic Substances Control says it will offer interior cleaning for homes where it performs soil cleanup, but Solis says she's concerned that the plan doesn't ensure that lead that has been tracked into houses over decades will be properly cleaned up.
Solis is also calling for block-by-block cleaning in the community.
Tucker of Consumer Watchdog alleges that due to budget constraints, Toxic Substances Control is "taking shortcuts" by not sampling for lead on roofs and not testing for lead solubility.
"If you don't look for lead solubility, you won't find anything that has to be cleaned up as expensive hazardous waste," she says.
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.
The project will be "the largest cleanup of its kind ever in California," according to Barbara Lee, director 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.
Lee acknowledges that many are frustrated that her agency can only remove soil from some of the area's contaminated homes. Getting every home cleaned "depends entirely on available funding," she said Thursday.
Experts say it could cost another $200 million to cover the cleanup of every contaminated home around Exide. A new statewide fee on car batteries is expected to generate up to $40 million a year for lead cleanups. Some of that could go to the Exide project.