County Approves ‘Strike Team’ to Deal with Toxic Polluters

First target will be Vernon-based battery-recycler.

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

State officials have advised some eastside residents to not allow their children to play in their backyards or at a local preschool in response to concerning results from soil samples taken in Boyle Heights Maywood, Huntington Park and East Los Angeles.

The samples, ordered by the state’s Department of Toxic Substance Control (DTSC) following repeated findings of unsafe levels or arsenic and lead emitting from battery-recycler Exide Technologies in Vernon, showed higher than expected levels of lead in 39 residential backyards and at the Volunteers of America Head Start preschool at Salazar Park in unincorporated East Los Angeles.

The test results were made public one day before Los Angeles County supervisors voted to create a county Toxic Threat Strike Team to target toxic polluters for closure, starting with Exide, accused of raising the cancer risk for more than 110,000 residents in that area and surrounding east and southeast communities.

At all 39 homes tested, lead levels were higher than the 80 parts per million acceptable to the state and as high as 580 parts per million at one home in Boyle Heights. According to DTSC, none of the homes had significant levels of arsenic.

As a result, DTSC has ordered Exide to conduct additional soil tests and by March 21 to submit a new plan for protecting children and pregnant women from the plant’s toxic emissions.

According to DTSC, while the samples taken at the Salazar Park Head Start, 95 parts per million, were “slightly above” what they expected, they are “not a problem.” Nevertheless, the agency issued a health precaution advising children and pregnant women, considered the most vulnerable to the adverse effects of lead, to thoroughly wash their hands or anything that may be exposed to contaminated soil, and plant fruits and vegetables in raised planters.

The county’s strike team will include public health officials, firefighters, the district attorney, public works officials and others. It will have the authority to engage and collaborate with state agencies and local jurisdictions.

Boyle Heights resident Dolores Mejia, pictured, dresses up as a sick patient to speak at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Meeting  , where a task force dedicated to closing down Exide Technologies in Vernon was approved.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Boyle Heights resident Dolores Mejia, pictured, dresses up as a sick patient to speak at the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Meeting , where a task force dedicated to closing down Exide Technologies in Vernon was approved. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“We are at the mercy of the state agencies that are just not working quick enough to get us in the direction to shut down these facilities,” said Supervisor Gloria Molina who proposed the task force and whose district includes Vernon and other impacted communities.

County officials said funding had prevented the county from stepping in sooner, but the new task force will provide a “public health lens” and help push state agencies to work at a quicker pace.

Initially, the team will focus on strategies to protect residents by identifying actions that would lead to the closure of the Vernon facility until DTSC makes a final decision about Exide’s permit: the plant has been operating on a temporary permit for decades.

Molina also wants to reach a deal with the state to give the county authority to go into facilities such as Exide and shut them down when necessary.

“That’s in the long run,” Molina said.

Despite agreeing that the plan is a step in the right direction, some longtime community activists still criticize county officials for taking too long to deal with Exide. Several speakers at Tuesday’s supervisors’ meeting said their deadline for closing down Exide has already expired.

“It should have been done a long time ago,” said Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights. “How can you tell a child not to play in the dirt? Where else in the world are people living like this?”

Moretta also questioned where the federal presence is in all this, telling EGP he personally called the office of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer on the matter but has yet to receive a response.

Boyle Heights resident Teresa Marquez said the federal government needs to step in and investigate how state agencies have handled Exide’s case.

“I’m not confident that we are even moving forward,” she said.

Exide’s Plant Manager John Hogarth Tuesday invited supervisors to visit the Vernon plant and see the company’s commitment to safety up close.

“Exide is committed to making the Vernon plant a premiere recycling facility and considers the health and safety of the community and its workers its top priority,” Hogarth said.

In a statement released by Exide, the company said several factors could have contributed to lead levels in the area, including freeway exhaust and paint found in older homes.

In its report, Exide said there is no pattern in the soil samples to suggest that proximity to its plant causes higher concentrations of lead. It also notes lead levels were below state health departments’ hazards levels. Exide said soil samples are just one part of a long-term assessment, which will also include blood testing for lead and therefore no conclusions should be reached about the risks or the source of the lead.

“The health and safety of the community, as well as its workforce, are important to Exide and the company is committed to investing in the Vernon facility to further reduce emissions and protect public health,” said Exide Senior Director of Commercial Operations E.N. “Bud” DeSart in a statement.

However, Brian Johnson, DTSC’s Hazardous Waste Program deputy director, told EGP tests showed lead levels higher than those used to determine whether the health impact to sensitive people, such as pregnant women and children, warrant additional action, such as cleanup.

“We are convinced, based on evidence, that Exide is a contributor,” said Johnson. [That’s] “Not to say there are no other contributors.”

Homes selected for soil sampling were picked based on an air dispersion module, which predicts the areas with the highest probability of exposure near Exide, according to DTSC.

The concentration levels “do not require any emergency action…but we are concerned with chronic exposure at lower levels,” Johnson said.

Vernon Mayor W. Michael McCormick said Tuesday he found the sampling results “troubling” and the health advisory for affected communities “warranted.”

Vernon’s Deputy Director of Health and Environmental Control, Dave LeDuff spoke in support of the strike team.

He said for the past year, Vernon’s elected officials have made it clear “that Exide must operate in a manner that does not “pose a health or safety threat to its workers,” or to workers at nearby facilities or the residents living in nearby communities.

He said Vernon is prepared to take part in the county’s strike team.

Moretta said the “holistic approach” could help reduce the problem of “one hand not knowing what the other is doing” by bringing “everyone to the table.”

Johnson told EGP that DTSC is already working with county health officials on Exide’s case and his agency welcomes “working with their new system.”

Huntington Park Councilmember Karina Macias told EGP she believes the new task force may create more bureaucracy and questions whether it could actually stall the closure process, but added she feels “it will provide a chance for the community to have a strong arm.”

She said the lead levels are not surprising, but it angers her “that we know this and nothing continues to happen.”

The Department of Public Health and County Counsel is expected to provide the board with a report on the strike team within 90 days.

A public meeting to discuss soil sample results has been scheduled for 6 p.m., March 19, at Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights.

 

For more information contact DTSC’s Public Participation Specialist Stacey Lear sat (714) 484-5354 or by email at stacey.lear@ctsc.ca.gov. 

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March 13, 2014  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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