The Board of Supervisors voted Tuesday to send a letter  to Gov. Jerry Brown urging him to force the cleanup of contaminated soil around homes near the Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.
Supervisor Gloria Molina said regulatory agencies failed to act “despite numerous and serious repeated violations.”
A toxic threat strike team established by the county identified 39 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood where elevated levels of lead were found in yards.
The state Department of Toxic Substances Control, however, agreed to clean up only two properties and will not commit to more tests as regulators negotiate Exide’s responsibility for the cleanup, according to Molina.
“Instead of championing environmental justice for communities heavily burdened by pollution from facilities like Exide, DTSC has been the greatest roadblock to progress,” said the supervisor.
“The community shouldn’t have to be left shouldering this burden … because of this regulatory failure,” Molina said.
She said the outcome would be different if it was another community at risk.
“DTSC’s proposal is unfair, unjust and simply unacceptable,” Molina said.
Agreeing with Molina, Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Parish in Boyle Heights told supervisors Tuesday that it is “difficult to deal with an agency that is so ineffective.”
“We were told by the DTSC, ‘Don’t let your vegetables touch the ground’ and that order has been in effect for months. But we’ve heard nothing since then. Asking the governor to intervene with CAL EPA is right on. This is an emergency issue,” Moretta told the board, according to Molina’s office.
Exide announced Monday that it would remove and replace the soil, plants and grass in the yards of two homes, even though testing on the properties suggested lead sources other than the plant.
“Exide is committed to doing our part and working collaboratively with state regulators on this clean-up,” said Thomas Strang, vice president for environmental health and safety. “We recognize concerns in the community and are taking steps to address the two sites.”
The letter to the governor will ask for funding to test the remaining 37 homes, a plan to screen for lead contamination in all 39 homes and to review the process that has enabled the plant at 2700 S. Indiana St. to operate under a temporary permit from the DTSC for 33 years.
It comes on the heels of residents, elected officials and organizations continuing to hammer state regulatory agencies to close the battery recycling plant down on grounds that Exide has repeatedly violated rules regulating the emission of toxic substances into the air, creating a significant health risk for people living and working in surrounding communities.
Exposure to high levels of lead can lead to learning disabilities in children. Children who play in dirt with higher than acceptable levels of lead are at increased risk.
At a press conference Monday in Boyle Heights, a coalition of local environmental justice groups called this week’s scheduled soil cleanup at two homes “insufficient to protect residents from exposure to lead and arsenic.” Representatives of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice, Communities for a Better Environment, Resurrection Church and the Natural Resources Defense Council, said regulators must see to it that all homes and schools in the surrounding communities are fully tested and cleaned up, inside and out.
The group also said both the soil and interiors of properties found earlier this year to have lead levels above California’s limit of 80 parts per million should be remediated. To date, however, state toxic substance regulators have only ordered soil removed from the two homes with the highest lead levels in the last round of testing; one with more than 580 parts per million, and the other with more than 450 parts per million.
Later this month, the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council will consider a resolution on its agenda seeking more punitive action against Exide, according to council President Carlos Montes.
The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that state regulators were planning to expand testing to 144 homes in a 2-square-mile area north and south of the plant, including parts of Boyle Heights, Maywood, Huntington Park and unincorporated East Los Angeles.
Exide, in operation since 1922, recycles the equivalent of 23,000 to 41,000 batteries daily and has been under fire from state and local regulators for more than a year.
One of only two lead-acid battery recycling plants west of the Rockies, the plant has been closed since mid-March while the company works to reduce air emissions and meet state and local requirements.
The plant was forced to temporarily close last year due to arsenic emissions, and the South Coast Air Quality Management District sued the company in January, alleging numerous air quality violations.
In May, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that the plant violated federal limits on lead emissions on more than 30 occasions between September and April.
Exide officials have repeatedly said the plant is not the sole contributor to lead exposure in surrounding neighborhoods, pointing to other long term potential sources such as lead-based paint in older homes, exhaust from leaded gas from long ago, pollution from nearby freeways and other smelting plants in Vernon.
Exide is seeking to use thresholds established by the EPA rather than more stringent requirements proposed by state regulators in designating areas for remediation.
But Molina said residents should not have to wait.
“Immediate action is necessary to address the public health needs of the community,” Molina said.
Information from City News service used in this report.