State’s Plan For Exide Cleanup Continues to Draw Protests

By Gloria Alvarez EGP Managing Editor

The plan developed by state regulators to clean up the massive contamination left behind by a now defunct battery recycler in Vernon will leave too many people in danger, environmental justice advocates, elected officials and residents of neighborhoods and cities found to have unsafe levels of lead and other toxic pollutants said at a press conference in Commerce Monday.

The danger and health risks from lead don’t stop at the front door or property line, and neither should its removal, speakers said about the California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control’s (DTSC) plan to clean properties contaminated with lead from the now closed Exide Technologies plant.

About 200 people attended Monday’s press conference organized by “Lead-Free Communities Coalition,” a community-based advocacy group representing residents of Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, Commerce, Bell, Huntington Park Maywood and Vernon, neighborhoods and cities in the 1.7-mile zone targeted for cleanup. Following the press conference, protesters marched to DTSC’s offices in Commerce where they shouted and chanted for DTSC to do more and to do it faster.

At a press conference in Commerce Monday, Monsignor John Moretta (center), joined by hundreds of community activists and elected officials demanded the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control include parkways and home interiors in its Exide clean up plan. contamination zone. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

At a press conference in Commerce Monday, Monsignor John Moretta (center), joined by hundreds of community activists and elected officials demanded the Dept. of Toxic Substances Control include parkways and home interiors in its Exide clean up plan. contamination zone. (EGP photo by Fred Zermeno)

The agency’s plan released in July calls for removing lead-contaminated soil from the yards of about 2,500 properties, with the priority being homes tested to have the highest levels of lead and where children and pregnant women are at highest risk.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Hilda Solis, who represents all the neighborhoods and cities in the impacted zone, said a canvass of 20,000 homes in the area earlier this summer found that 50% of the homes have children under the age of 6.

Lead is a dangerous toxin known to cause neurological disorders, learning and cognitive disabilities and lower IQ’s even at low levels of exposure. While the federal government and state health officials have set acceptable rates of exposure, health experts say there is no safe level.

Residents and activists have blasted the plan as insufficient and too slow to deal with the ongoing health hazard. On Monday, they said they want DTSC to add parkways and home interiors to the plan, and to expand the area targeted for remediation. Parkways are the area between a yard or property and the street, which many residents treat as an extension of their homes.

They said it’s time for state lawmakers to do what’s right and fully fund the the cleanup  of their neighborhoods.

“They wouldn’t stand for their (DTSC) actions in Porter Ranch or Beverly Hills,” said Monsignor John Moretta of Resurrection Church in Boyle Heights, a lead organizer in the fight to rectify the damage caused by Exide.

Moretta was referring to the quick and well-funded cleanup effort that took place in Porter Ranch, where residents demanded the closure of a Southern California Gas Co. facility in Aliso Canyon after a leak was discovered in October 2015. It took less than three months to relocate more than 2,000 residents, shut down schools and move students to other campuses, while residents living for decades in Exide’s toxic shadow are still waiting for their homes to be cleaned.

“It’s all about politics and money,” Moretta said. “Our government officials need to implement a plan that’s 100 percent funded.”

According to air quality regulators, as many as 110,000 people were exposed to cancer-causing emissions from the plant and upwards of 10,000 properties may have some level of lead contamination. Environmental experts say the contamination is the largest in state history.

Los Angeles Councilman Jose Huizar represents one of the most heavily contaminated neighborhoods, Boyle Heights. The community has been “screaming for help” for more than 30 years, while DTSC allowed Exide to continue to pollute, he told EGP. “All the while our children have been exposed to lead pollution, in the air and in the soil.

“And now, the DTSC is ignoring the need for a full cleanup plan that reaches all of the places our children live and play,” Huizar said. “The lead is everywhere, including parkways … This is literally a matter of life and death,” he said. “Where is the urgency and why aren’t we doing a thorough cleanup?” He called anything less than a full cleanup unacceptable.

EGP reached out to DTSC for comment but had not heard back as of press time, but the agency has previously said it does not have enough money to do the full cleanup – which public health and environmental experts have put at $400 million or more.

L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (right) joined protesters in Commerce Monday who say the state's plan to remove hazardous waste from homes is insufficient. Sept. 18, 2017 (EGP photo be Fred Zermeno)

L.A. Councilman Jose Huizar and Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (right) joined protesters in Commerce Monday who say the state’s plan to remove hazardous waste from homes is insufficient. Sept. 18, 2017 (EGP photo be Fred Zermeno)

As part of its deal with federal authorities to permanently close and avoid criminal prosecution, Exide agreed to pay $50 million for the removal of its hazardous waste; of that, $26 million was to go toward cleaning the surrounding neighborhoods. After a great deal of pressure from the community, Gov. Jerry Brown agreed to loan DTSC 176.6 million for environmental testing and cleanup work in the neighborhoods surrounding the closed plant.

State officials have said they will go after Exide to recoup the money, but no one seems clear on how or when that will happen.

Solis points out that this is not the first time the community has come together to demand a swift and thorough cleanup.

“This week’s rally was months in the making because DTSC is not listening to our communities who are buried in pollution and lead,” she said in an email to EGP. “DTSC’s methodology has limited ability to identify ‘hot spots,’ including parkways in front of homes,” said Solis, who has repeatedly criticized state regulators for not being aggressive enough and for ignoring recommendations from the county and residents.

She said the state is offering vouchers to residents to pay companies to go and “vacuum their carpets and wipe down walls,” and that’s not good enough.

The interiors should be decontaminated by hazardous waste experts at the same time that they remove lead from the exterior, she said.

Like Moretta, Solis believes that if the predominately Latino working class communities were more affluent and white, the state would be doing more.

“Residents have every right to be angry with the slow pace of the cleanup,” Assemblyman Miguel Santiago told EGP. He said he attended the rally because he has a responsibility to his constituents to keep the pressure on state regulators, something he’s made his “top priority” since first being elected. Santiago sent a letter to DTSC asking the agency to look into including parkways in its plan.

An informal survey of more than 4,000 residents conducted a few weeks before DTSC released its plan revealed that many residents in the impacted area live in fear that they or someone in their home may get lead poisoning or cancer due to their exposure.

There’s tremendous interest in how Exide has affected them, Solis said..

The chants and shouts Monday were much the same as those heard at hundreds of rallies, protests and public hearings over the last five years.

Moretta said it’s a shame the community has to resort to drastic measures like protests to make a statement. Residents in east and southeast communities are being treated like second-class citizens, the Catholic priest said.

He noted that Sam Atwood, a spokesman for the South Coast Air Quality District Management District had labeled the contaminated areas the worst he has ever seen,

“We have children and families on [those] streets,” Moretta said, referring to additional areas that should be cleaned.

“They’re [DTSC] suppose to protect people and our environment from toxic substances,” Moretta said. “It’s time they start doing that.”

EGP Staff Writer Carlos Alvarez contributed to this story.

Updated 9/22/17 : Adds information from Sup. Hilda Solis about the availability and effectiveness of vouchers for interior cleaning of homes.

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September 21, 2017  Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.

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