Exide Residential Cleanup Continues

By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer

On the quiet block of La Puerta Avenue in Boyle Heights, a small bobcat bulldozer was in high gear last week, removing dirt from homes where high levels of lead were found.

At least one hundred wheelbarrows of tainted soil were removed from two homes on the block early Thursday, part of an ongoing effort to clean up contamination residents and toxic chemical experts say are tied to emissions from Exide Technologies in Vernon.

“How many years have gone by and we didn’t even know the damage [Exide] was doing,” said Jovita Morales, one of the homeowners whose soil was removed.

The South Coast Air Quality Management Department in 2013 found several times that emissions from Exide had higher than safe levels of arsenic and lead, increasing the risk of cancer and neurological deficits to as many 110,00 residents living near the acid-lead battery recycler.

DTSC workers remove contaminated soil from a home in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC workers remove contaminated soil from a home in Boyle Heights. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

State regulators have ordered Exide to make major changes to pollution control systems at its Vernon plant, and to pay for the clean up contamination at homes like those on La Puerta Avenue.

While not admitting any culpability, Exide agreed to pay for blood lead tests for area residents who are concerned about their exposure. Testing, conducted by the county health department, started in  April. So far, only 450 people have taken advantage of the free blood tests, but none those tested “required medical intervention,” according to the county. The low number of tests has prompted the testing period to be extended for the second time until Jan. 30, according to county health officials.

Earlier this year, state regulators identified 215 homes in Boyle Heights and Maywood as having the highest likelihood of being impacted by Exide emissions. The Dept. of Toxic Chemical Substance Control, DTSC, ordered the company to pay for soil testing and more recently to put $9 million into a fund to be used to clean up all 215 homes.

As of Monday, only 104 of those homes had been tested, according to DTSC. Nineteen of the homes were labeled priority one, the highest priority based on lead levels found and whether there are children or pregnant women living in the home. Priority one homes will cleaned first, according to DTSC, which says it will continue to reach out to property owners to encourage them to get their properties tested.

DTSC Director of Communications Jim Marxen told EGP the state agency wants the process to go as quickly as possible, and has asked Exide to clean up 2.5 homes a week.

“We believe Exide is responsible” for remediating the damage, he said.

Marxen pointed out that [the plant] has been operating since 1920, nearly 100 years.

“For that extended period of time, this [assessment area] is probably the place their emissions ended up,” he said.

[Addendum: It should be pointed out that the Vernon plant itself has existed since 1920, however Exide Technologies has only been operating the plant since 2000.]

Lea este artículo en Español: Exide Continúa LImpieza en Hogares Cercanos

The two residential properties on La Puerta Avenue, which sits near the industrial side of town on the border of East Los Angeles, are the latest homes to be cleaned. Soil was removed from two homes in August; one in Maywood the other also on La Puerta Avenue.

“We are aiming to get at least five homes [clean] before the holidays,” said Marxen. “Our target is to get a least 10 to 12 homes cleaned by the third week of January,” he added.

But getting residents to sign up to get their soil tested has proven difficult, says Marxen.

Though there could be a number of reasons why testing is not complete in the assessment area, many residents may find themselves in the same situation as longtime resident Jose Ornelas, 79, who has rented the La Puerta Avenue house where he lives for 28 years.

“There was some confusion because the letters they sent were addressed to me,” he said in Spanish.

If it had not been for Ornelas contacting the owner, soil on the property would not have been tested last month.

Lucia Flores, 72, said she initially didn’t want to go through the process of having her soil tested because she wasn’t sure what would be expected of her as a homeowner.

“It took me a long time to grow these plants for someone to just come and cut them,” she half-jokingly said.

However, once the soil is tested, the results are analyzed and labeled as priority one, two, three or below threshold, says Marxen. So far all 104 homes tested have been above the allowed threshold, he added. According to DTSC, 19 homes were labeled priority one, 35 priority two and 31 priority three.

DTSC will meet with the residents at least three times to explain the test results and set up a cleaning schedule, which includes soil replacement, dust control measures, air monitoring and yard restoration that includes keeping plants deemed sensitive by the owner.

Residents do not have to be at their home while the weeklong clean up takes place, in fact they can opt to stay elsewhere at Exide’s expense, according to DTSC.

On Monday, Flores said she is waiting for the results of tests conducted back in October.

“I worry about my granddaughter who lives here,” she said in Spanish, as she watered the plants in her yard. “I have heard the [Exide] plant is bad for our health,” she said.

Exide’s Vernon plant has been closed since March as it installs enhanced systems to comply with California’s air quality standards. The company has invested $35 million on environmental, health and safety measures since 2010.

“We recognize the community’s concerns and are confident the Department’s tough new order provides strong regulatory oversight for cleaning the identified residential properties,” said Thomas Strang, Vice President of Environment Health and Safety for Exide.

“Exide is committed to operating a premier recycling facility and working collaboratively with regulators to perform all work necessary to reach his goal,” he said.

Marxen told EGP the agency hopes the visibility of the cleanup will encourage neighbors to get their yards sampled.

Morales saw the clean up taking place back in August and though about contacting DTSC out of concern for her grandchildren, ages nine and four months, who live in the home.

“We just never got around to doing it because we get home from work late,” she said. “A lot of my neighbors may be in denial, but this clean up is good for the residents.”

The cleanup up cost per property will vary according to the amount of soil to be removed and property type.

If there are still funds left in the $9 million community trust fund after the initial group targeted for testing is completed, the remaining money will go towards expanding testing and cleaning beyond the original assessment area, and for testing of commercial properties in areas adjacent to the Vernon plant.

“Wherever we find contamination that we can link to Exide we are going to make them clean it up,” said Marxen.

 

Residents in the two assessment areas can contact DTSC for information about cleanup at (844) 225-3887.  

 

[Correction: An earlier version of this article identified Jim Marxen simply as DTSC Director.]

 

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Twitter @nancyreporting

nmartinez@egpnews.com

 
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December 11, 2014  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

Comments

One Response to “Exide Residential Cleanup Continues”

  1. Exide Continúa Limpieza en Hogares Cercanos : Eastern Group Publications on December 11th, 2014 2:54 pm

    […] Read this article in English: Exide Residential Cleanup Continues […]

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