Exide Plant Cleanup ‘Ignites’ New Fears

February 11, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

Restarting the 100-ton kettles to recapture lead at the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon could expose residents and workers within a two-mile radius of the facility to a new round of toxic levels of lead, warned residents, environmental activists and health experts at recent state sponsored public hearings.

Over 100,000 people have already suffered repeated exposure to levels of lead so high they can cause birth defects, learning disabilities, cancer, and other chronic health issues.

The latest round of concerns are in response to controversial options in Exide’s proposed closure plan for the decontaminating and dismantling the Vernon site, which among other things call for removing lead leftover from the smelting process.

Adding fuel to the fire is widespread mistrust of Exide and state regulators’ — the Dept. of Toxic Substance Control and South Coast Air Quality Management District’s —ability to protect public health during the cleanup process. The fears are deep and come following years of lax oversight that allowed Exide to violate state standards for toxic chemical emissions with near impunity.

“We don’t trust DTSC, AQMD or Exide to be part of the cleanup,” said Joe Gonzalez at a public hearing last week in Commerce to gather input into DTSC’s Draft Environmental Impact Report outlining proposals for the decontamination and dismantling of the battery producers’ plant in Vernon.

“It’s the fox watching the hen house,” the Boyle Heights resident said.

Exide closed the facility in March 2014 for equipment upgrades with plans to resume operations when complete.

According to DTSC, they were in the process of denying Exide the permit required to resume operations and in April 2015, to avoid federal criminal prosecution for its handling of hazardous waste, Exide agreed to permanently close the site and to clean up the contamination left behind.

Eastside resident Doelorez Mejia, left, accuses DTSC of not listening to the community during public hearing in Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Eastside resident Doelorez Mejia, left, accuses DTSC of not listening to the community during public hearing in Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

On Saturday, the AQMD’s independent hearing board approved an amendment to the agency’s abatement order requiring Exide to comply with lead emissions standard, giving them enforcement power until the plant’s closure plan is finalized sometime in June.

The enforcement capability is important because the plant has violated lead emissions standards even while closed, although according to AQMD they have not exceeded lead and arsenic standard since December 2014.

The Draft EIR outlines how Exide plans to clean the site in a manner that is supposed to protect public health. DTSC is accepting comments on the plan until March 28, which will be included and considered in the Final EIR.

Exide is proposing to remove hazardous waste collected from the site by rail, and to remove lead from kettles mechanically or by using water jet cutting technology.

According to DTSC, all the alternatives under consideration pose minimal risk of recontamination or to air quality in the surrounding communities.

But Dr. Jill Johnston, an assistant professor at Keck School of Medicine at USC, said she does not see how re-melting the lead will not have a significant negative effect on workers and the surrounding community, considering the facility is using the existing air pollution controls that “we know have not been fully protective in the past.”

The community fears turning on any equipment at the site could lead to recontamination, reiterated Mark Lopez of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice

“We don’t want the kettles to be turned on,” said Lopez, adding that they do not want the work to be done by Exide workers.

At an Assembly hearing in Sacramento and the two hearings in Commerce last week, speakers testified they believe Exide’s lead and arsenic emissions are to blame for the startling number of people in their neighborhoods suffering with neurological diseases, cancer, autism, asthma, and other ailments associated with exposure to lead.

Gonzalez says he is dying of cancer; not too long ago his father succumbed to the disease. Of the 19 homes on his block, nine are home to someone with cancer or who has died of cancer. He does not understand why the government has not responded aggressively to the local disaster.

“We’re too dark to get the attention Porter Ranch is getting but not dark enough to get the attention Flint, Michigan is getting,” accused Gonzalez.

Community Technical Advisor Dr. James Wells said all three methods would carry the same environmental risk and therefore DTSC should be open to the community preference.

Johnston suggests the agency limit human contact with lead by adopting rules stricter than the out of date regulations adopted by CALOSHA in 1979.

 DTSC is considering restart kettles at the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon., pictured, to recapture lead. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC is considering restart kettles at the Exide Technologies plant in Vernon., pictured, to recapture lead. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

“We simply cannot have any more workers poisoned by Exide,” she said.

DTSC has proposed extensive requirements to limit re-contamination including tarping buildings during dismantling, maintaining negative pressure and air pollution control devises on site, detailed indoor loading procedures, prescribed truck routes that avoid residential areas and real time air monitoring to prevent lead dust from migrating offsite.

After reviewing the draft closure plan, Lydia Nowal and others suggested DTSC consider video surveillance at the site. Other residents reiterated the need for GPS tracking, flags and placards on the trucks to help the public identify vehicles carrying the contaminated materials out of Vernon.

“That’s something we need to get reassurance” about, Nowal said.

Residents said their distrust is supported by the lack of action on the part of their elected officials, from Gov. Brown down to state and city representatives.

“The governor should be here, elected officials should be here,” Miguel Alfaro of Boyle Heights said. “The mayor [Eric Garcetti] himself lives just 2 miles away and he has never shown up to a meeting.”

While hearings are now focused on cleaning the Exide facility, many speakers argued that DTSC should be less focused on cleaning the uninhabited site and instead use all its resources to clean homes where people live.

According to some environmental contamination experts, at an estimated $400 million, the Exide clean up could be the most expensive in state history.

So far, only 200 homes out of the 10,000 potentially contaminated properties have been cleaned by DTSC. The agency currently only has enough resources to clean two homes a week, a rate that Gonzalez complained could drag the process out for decades, preventing children from being able to play in their own backyards.

DTSC spokesman Sandy Nax, however, told EGP the plant and residential cleanups are occurring simultaneously.

Miguel Alfaro of Boyle Heights told DTSC officials he has been fighting for Exide’s closure and urged urging an immediate cleanup for years.

“We’re already here, some of us for generations,” he said.

“We will never be able to pick up and move to greener pastures.”

‘Move Quicker,’ City Tells DTSC

September 17, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

A small breathing machine in his hands and on the verge of tears, Javier Hernandez asked  Commerce city officials to explain why they had not do something sooner to stop the lead contamination flowing from a controversial batter-recycling plant in Vernon to Commerce homes.

“We are here to demand a speedy clean up of our area,” Hernandez, speaking in Spanish, told the council during its bimonthly meeting last week. “I have to use this oxygen machine to sleep for the rest of my life,” he desperately added.

As previously reported by EGP, Commerce officials were caught by surprise when they recently learned that at least one city neighborhood is among the areas state regulators believe to be contaminated with lead from the now shuttered Exide Technologies plant in Vernon.

Concerned about the exposure, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) was asked to attend the city council’s Sept. 8 meeting and to explain their findings to the council and residents.

In March, Exide was forced to permanently close down over its illegally handling of hazardous waste, violations that had exposed hundreds of thousands of people in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles and several Vernon-adjacent Southeast cities to dangerous levels of cancer causing levels of lead and arsenic.

On Aug. 20, DTSC announced the contamination area was larger than originally believed, and that new wind pattern modeling had determined that Commerce should be added to the soil sampling target zone. Five to 10,000 properties on the north side of Commerce could be contaminated with lead from the battery-recycling plant, according to state toxic chemical regulators.

Gina Solomon, MD. MPH, deputy secretary for Science and Health with California Environmental Protection Agency, Cal EPA, described lead as a type of poison that could cause anemia, abdominal cramps, seizures, kidney damage. It can also lead to neurological and birth defects.

“Lead doesn’t really [ever] go away,” she explained.

Solomon said that while the investigation is ongoing, she “strongly” discourages allowing children to play in the dirt and people gardening with the soil in their backyards.

“People can also take off their shoes or wipe them well on the entrance mat” to prevent tracking the contaminated soil inside their homes, she suggested.

Mayor Pro-Tem Tina Baca del Rio told the audience she’s worried because DTSC at first said Commerce was not impacted. “Now they say we are but we don’t know to what extent,” she said.

Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo told DTSC’s representatives she is very disappointed that they are not moving faster with their investigation and that they had not yet even notified the Montebello Unified School District (MUSD) about the potential contamination at schools in Commerce.

“You won’t have a draft [of your action plan] until October, that means you will not start sampling until December,” Rebollo said in frustration. “That’s not quick enough.”

DTSC Site Project Manager Su Patel said testing is being delayed due to a lack of available funding, but once they get started they would move quickly to test the large number of properties.

She said the agency would need help from the city to identify and contact property owners.

Which area is contaminated? asked Baca del Rio. “We need to know, to create some relief,” she said.

While Patel was reluctant to specify an area, a map provided by DTSC shows possible contamination in and around the Bristow Park neighborhood.

The focal point should be our schools, we need to highlight any problems around our children, Councilman Hugo Argumedo told DTSC.

Patel said DTSC has been in contact with MUSD and is doing its best to make sure everyone is informed.

“Fix it! Figure out who’s doing the damage,” Baca del Rio told state regulators.

“We are aware we are not the only [contaminated] community, but this community is my priority, as it is the priority of the council,” she said.

Hernandez told EGP he’s tired of hearing promises that the problem will be fixed. He was very upset that the doctor focused on a general study about the impact of lead on children and did not included local statistics in her presentation.

“How is it possible that we allow these people to come in and let them talk to their benefit?” he said. Hernandez wants more than talk, he wants a speedy cleanup.

But according to Solomon, they are still in the very early stages of the investigation in Commerce.

Hernandez’ situation highlights the complexity of identifying with certainty the source of the contamination, at least how it got to where it might be found. Hernandez told EGP he worked for 35 years at a painting company near Exide, and blames the battery recycling plant for his asthma.

Solomon said the agency would like to hear from people like Hernandez and former Exide employees so they can test them for lead, pointing out that most of Exide’s workers did not live in Vernon. She said in cases like Hernandez, who worked nearby—they could have unwittingly spread the contamination to their homes.

“They usually come with lead on their shoes, clothes, inside of their car,” Solomon said. “It is an important issue for them and their families” to consider.

Exide Taint Blows Over to City of Commerce

August 27, 2015 by · Leave a Comment 

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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