Exide Taint Blows Over to City of Commerce

By Jacqueline Garcia, EGP Staff Writer

The City of Commerce had joined a long list of communities affected by lead contamination from a Vernon-based battery recycling plant permanently closed in March for hazardous waste violations.

The disturbing news was announced last week by the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), which said it used wind pattern modeling to add Commerce to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties could be contaminated with lead from the Exide Technologies plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.

Exide’s troubling history of toxic chemical air emissions and hazardous waste violations has sparked outrage and protests in an area that runs from Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities.

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, pictured center, demands that cleanup of lead contaminated homes begin immediately after learning testing will expand to Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, pictured center, demands that cleanup of lead contaminated homes begin immediately after learning testing will expand to Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Commerce City Administrator Jorge Rifa told EGP said they are in the “very early stages” of understanding the “scope and extent” of the damage in Commerce, but said city staff and the city council will do everything within their jurisdiction to address the problem.

“We are working really hard and the council is very concerned,” Rifa said. “This is something new for all of us … We don’t want to overstate or play down the problem.”

Like Vernon, Commerce is also an industrial city, the biggest difference Commerce has over 13,000 residents compared to about 200 Vernon residents.

News that toxic pollution from Exide had made its way to homes in Commerce caught many in the city by surprise.

City Planner Jose Jimenez told EGP he attended a public meeting in Boyle Heights Aug. 13 and there was no discussion of possible lead contamination in Commerce.

Mayor Pro Tem Tina Baca del Rio attended last week’s meeting and told EGP she was taken aback by the news.

She said Vernon needs to revise its policies regarding the types of businesses is allows to operate in that city because they not only impact Vernon, but other communities as well.

Del Rio said she is committed to working on the issue with representatives from all the affected areas.

Last Friday, Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, who represents Commerce, issued a statement demanding the immediate cleanup of contaminated properties and for DTSC to not spend more time on site testing.

“This contamination is now more widespread and my first concern is with the immediate health of citizens in the City of Commerce, especially our most vulnerable, such as pregnant women and young children who may come in contact with contamination in their yards or at the playground,” Garcia said.

“The continued testing is expensive and continues to only reaffirm what the scientific models show to be the likely spread of the contaminant,” she added.

But according to DTSC spokesperson Sandy Nax, additional testing is needed to identify the locations of lead deposits and concentrations before cleanup can begin.

“Testing also helps with prioritizing cleanup of properties with the highest contamination,” he told EGP.

The northern part of the Union Pacific Railyard is believed to be most affected, Rifa said. The city council has schedule the issue for discussion at its Sept. 8 meeting. DTSC will brief the council on the results of their findings and answer questions, he said.

In the meantime, Garcia’s office reported that DTSC is working on a letter/email that in the next few days will be sent to residents in the impacted area.

“This letter/ email will just explain what is currently going on and what the next steps are,” states Garcia’s office.

With the information being so fresh, city staff told EGP many residents and business owners may not yet be aware of the latest findings.

“I haven’t heard from any business owner” as of yet, Deputy City Administrator Fernando Mendoza told EGP.

“In talking with our Environmental Health and Safety team, we haven’t received any notification from a regulator about possible effect on our business,” Commerce-based Unified Grocers spokesperson Paul Dingsdale told EGP. “We would not anticipate any issues, based on our team’s review.”

Eddie Tafoya, executive director of the city’s Chamber of Commerce Industrial Council, told EGP Tuesday they had only just recently heard the news and are still getting caught up on the issue.

While many in the city expressed surprise over the latest DTSC pronouncements, Commerce is not new to the controversy. In 2013, the city council sent a letter to Vernon requesting they close the plant, but according to Rifa, they never received a response.

The issue could be tricky for Commerce, which also has a large industrial base and is home to one of the busiest railyards in the country, two known sources of pollution.

Unlike Vernon, however, residents in the city have a strong history of pushing environmental concerns, such as pushing to stop trains from idling near homes and most recently a ban on idling by large trucks in order to decrease the harmful effects of diesel emissions to residents and workers in the city.

Baca del Rio said she is expecting to get funding as soon as possible to clean the contamination. “Just because we are minorities that doesn’t mean [big corporations] can come and pollute our city.”

Garcia said she is committed to work with Commerce, residents, the advisory board and DTSC to keep the public informed about “this hazard and the health screenings needed” to move the community forward.

Due to privacy and confidentiality concerns, DTSC will not release information about private property owners and residents, including who is being tested or the results, stated Garcia.

Rifa encouraged those who may be concerned to visit their doctor and to be tested for lead. Following other simple directions, such as removing shoes before entering a house, also makes sense, Rifa said.

“The test will show whether the level is above the Centers for Disease Control’s acceptable limits, and whether medical attention is needed,” said Rifa.

 

Los Angeles County Department of Public Health is still testing the blood-lead levels of residents near the Exide facility. Those interested can sign up for the testing at www.bloodleadtesting.com or by calling toll-free:1-844-888-2290. 

 
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August 27, 2015  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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