Stolen Trailer Found in Commerce

May 12, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Police searched Tuesday for five men suspected of stealing thousands of Dell laptop computers worth as much as $4 million in an armed robbery at a warehouse in the Harbor Gateway area.

The thefts at a warehouse in the 19200 block of South Western Avenue occurred about 11:30 a.m. Friday, said Officer Mike Lopez, a Los Angeles police spokesman. Five male suspects, four of whom were masked, were involved in the heist, during which a security guard was held at gunpoint, he said.

The guard at the warehouse was zip-tied and the bandits drove two trucks onto the property, hooked up two trailers containing a more than 7,600 laptops and drove off, police said.

One of the trailers was found empty Saturday morning in Commerce, LAPD Capt Gary Walters told ABC7.

Anyone with information on the thefts that could help LAPD Commercial Auto Theft detectives was asked to call (818) 832-7500.

Demands to Expand Exide Test Area Grow

May 5, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

At the first public hearing since the governor signed legislation to appropriate $176.6 million for the testing and cleanup of residential properties surrounding the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon, residents were not jumping for joy or thanking state regulators. Instead, they were tired, frustrated and irked that testing for lead has not been expanded further into east and southeast L.A.

A number of residents testified in support of extending the 1.7-mile cleanup zone to 4.5 miles, getting support from DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Committee, which voted last Thursday to recommend expanding the testing area and to appoint an independent third party to oversee the cleanup.

It is not clear what practical impact the vote will have, but in a statement to EGP, the Department of Toxic Substances Control explained that the agency had set the 1.7 mile testing boundary based on preliminary analysis of soil data, which found that lead emissions from Exide may have traveled 1.3 to 1.7 miles from the facility.

“DTSC appreciates the input of the committee, which was set up to advise DTSC as we move forward,” the agency’s statement says.

Clara Solis lives just outside the 1.7 testing area: Last week she presented DTSC with a petition signed by area residents demanding the testing area be expanded.

“You really don’t know what you are doing because you haven’t tested those areas,” said the East Los Angeles resident.

Rachel Vermillion, who frequents public hearings for the SR-710 extension project, complained her community is constantly bypassed.

A study released last month by the Department of Public Health found that children who live near the Vernon plant have higher levels of lead in their blood.

According to the study, 3.58 percent of young children who live within a mile of the plant had 4.5 micrograms of lead in their blood; children living 1 to 4.5 miles from the plant had 2.41 to 4.5 micrograms or higher levels of lead. According to the Center for Disease Control even low levels of lead can affect IQ and academic achievement. The agency believes there are no safe blood lead level for children.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, center, discusses blood lead levels during a meeting April 28 in Commerce.  (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

DTSC Director Barbara Lee, center, discusses blood lead levels during a meeting April 28 in Commerce. (EGP photo by Nancy Martinez)

Of the 10,000 or so properties in that preliminary investigation area, 213 properties have already been cleaned. State funds will be used to test all 10,000 properties and to clean the 2,500 homes with the highest levels of lead.

Jim Wells, technical advisor to DTSC’s Exide Community Advisory Group, previously stated he believes the contamination goes beyond the 1.7 miles boundary. That would mean millions of people at risk and tens of thousands of additional properties contaminated.

“…To better understand what the conditions really are,” more “robust” data must be collected, Wells said.

One Bell Gardens High School student wanted to know if schools were informed that the area has one of the highest number of children with lead in their blood.

Boyle Heights resident Joe Gonzalez accused DTSC of “minimizing the amount of blood that’s safe in the body.

“The safe level of lead in the body is zero,” he said.

Huntington Park resident Maria Kennedy is a member of Communities for a Better Environment.

She told the committee she felt DTSC was downplaying the Dept. of Public Health’s blood level report. “Homes should be tested for lead regardless if Exide is responsible,” she said. “We should be thinking about the high levels of lead in children and secure funding” to handle the problem, Kennedy said.

DTSC Director Barbara Lee responded that the state has stepped up to the plate, approving a multi-million dollar funding plan. Lee said she needs to demonstrate those funds are being used properly before attempting to secure more money.

“The state has never put forward that kind of money, it’s going to keep us busy for the next couple of years,” she added.

But Teresa Marquez of Boyle Heights feels money should not be the concern.

“We may not have the money but we need to know” the extent of the problem, she said. “How can you get more money if you can’t prove the need?”

Contamination must surely reach Bell Gardens, said Xugo Lujan with East Yards for Environmental Justice. “It’s not like it reaches Atlantic and drops to the floor,” he said pointing to the map. Jorge Lara, another Bell Gardens student demanded to know if homes outside the 1.7-mile radius would be tested. He never got an answer.

Noel Pimentel of Commerce said the city’s residents who were incorporated into the testing area last summer are still waiting for test results.

Commerce Councilwoman Oralia Rebollo asked Lee why homes with young children and pregnant women are no longer considered first priority given the agency’s previous assertions that they would be a top priority for cleanup even if their soil tested less than 1000 ppm.

“We’re confused and residents are upset,” she complained. “They were told they would be priority one and now they are being told they are priority two.”

Lee did not directly respond but assured that the agency plans to decontaminate 2,500 homes with lead levels of 1,000 ppm or higher.

Dozens of Commerce families signed up to have their blood tested for lead during a ‘Cinco de Mayo’ event at Bristow Park Sunday.   (City of Commerce)

Dozens of Commerce families signed up to have their blood tested for lead during a ‘Cinco de Mayo’ event at Bristow Park Sunday.
(City of Commerce)

According to Lee, DTSC is developing a new system to prioritize properties for cleanup. Lee said DTSC does take the risk of exposure into consideration.

“There’s just too many in one bin,” she pointed out, hedging her remarks.

Not satisfied with Lee’s response, Rebollo pushed the director to explain how the agency plans to address possible contamination at schools.

Schools have not tested as high as residential properties, responded Lee.

Testing results will be available to schools in the coming weeks, and could be made public if the school district approves, according to Su Patel, DTSC site project manager.

“I find it contradictory that you say children are a priority when you don’t have a plan in place for schools,” criticized Rebollo.

Lee reiterated that expanding the testing area from 200 homes to 10,000 properties requires a change in the three-bin prioritization process.

“We need more bins,” she said. “We can’t have 2,000 in first place because we won’t know where to start.”

Mark Lopez, executive director of East Yards and the advisory group’s community chairperson, closed the nearly four-hour long meeting by saying elected officials and state regulators must understand there is still a long way to go.

“There seems to be a growing frustration during meetings that comes from folks taking credit when the cameras show up, when we get the money, but when there is critique, those folks want to act” like everything they are hearing is new.

Firefighters Battle Stubborn Fire in Commerce

April 28, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Dozens of firefighters spent more than an hour battling a stubborn fire at a single-story commercial building in Commerce.

Flames burned through the roof of the building in the 4000 block of East Washington Boulevard before 55 firefighters snuffed it out, Los Angeles County Fire Department Inspector Richard Licon said.

No one was inside when the fire broke out about 2:50 p.m. on April 21, according to Licon, and no one was hurt. Knockdown was declared at 4:03 p.m. later that day, the fire department reported.

Other businesses attached to the burned 10,000-square-foot structure, where diesel engines were repaired and assembled, were undamaged, Licon said.

The Vernon Fire Department sent one engine company to the scene to assist in the firefight, Licon said.

Video from the scene showed firefighters on the scorched building’s roof, which was partially covered in white flame-dousing foam.

Exide: From Brownfield to Classroom

April 28, 2016 by · 1 Comment 

East and southeast Los Angeles County area residents could soon be trained to test for environmental damages like those in their own backyard.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control plans in coming months to roll out a job and development training program open to residents living in the areas impacted by lead contamination from the now shuttered Exide battery recycling plant in Vernon.

“This is truly a unique program and a first for DTSC,” says Ana Mascarenas, assistant director for environmental justice and tribal affairs for DTSC. For once, the “local community can benefit directly and be a part of restorative justice,” Mascarenas told EGP.

The $176.6 million Exide cleanup package signed by Gov. Brown last week includes $1.2 million to train local groups and residents in skills required to take part in the testing and cleanup process.

DTSC, the state regulatory agency overseeing the Exide cleanup, is currently consulting with experts in the job-training field to develop its program, and they will solicit input from the community during an Exide Advisory Committee meeting being held today.

Mascarenas told EGP that DTSC plans to model its program after the California Environmental Protection Agency’s, CalEPA, Brownfields Environmental Workforce Development and Job Training program, which has prepared local residents to clean up contaminated properties while at the same time preparing them for careers in environmental remediation.

“We want this program to prepare residents for green jobs that will help to immediately clean up the neighborhood, while providing a long term [positive] impact for the community’s economy,” Mascarenas said.

Assemblyman Miguel Santiago’s 53rd District includes many of the communities polluted by Exide, and he is the author of the bill funding the Exide cleanup and training program. He told EGP that creating jobs in the state’s third poorest district was an important consideration.

“The least the state can do is offer jobs to the community it dumped on for decades,” he said.

“The community is in desperate need of jobs and must be cleaned up,” he said, explaining the dual benefit to communities like Boyle Heights and Vernon.

The idea to include a clause promoting the use of local businesses and to give local residents the skills needed to be part of the decontamination effort is the results of hours spent listening to constituents testify at Exide-related public hearings, explained Santiago.

“When money is expended, I want to make sure it is expended in the impacted district and used to provide local jobs,” he told EGP.

While details for the training program are still in the works, it’s likely those who sign up will have to commit 12 to 16 weeks to the program, which will include lead awareness classes, certifications and exposure to tools used for remediation.

“These certificates will not be exclusive to just Exide,” said Mascarenas, “they can apply these skills to DTSC cleanup sites across the state.”

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples.  (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Steven Gendel of ThermoFisher Scientific shows eastside residents how to use a portable analyzer to test soil samples. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

Completing the training, however, is not a guarantee for employment, emphasized DTSC, although DTSC and state legislators will stress the importance of hiring those trained through the program to the contractors hired to cleanup residential properties, clarified Mascarenas.

Mark Lopez, executive director for East Yards for Environmental Justice, told EGP the community wants reassurance local hiring is not just promoted but required.

East Yards, together with other community activists, have drafted language detailing their ideal local hire and workforce development program, including a demand that at least 50 percent of all jobs created directly or indirectly by the cleanup effort be performed by local hires, with 20 percent specifically set aside for low-income residents.

Training will vary by position. Some groups will simply be trained to do outreach, something DTSC has been doing for months.

Members of East Yards, for example, have already been going door to door in the communities surrounding the Exide plant to get the access agreements needed to test for lead.

“We want to understand the intimate details involved with the clean up so that we can communicate that to the community,” explained Lopez explained.

Lopez told EGP he would like to see students from the YouthBuild Charter Schools in Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles benefit from the program. As a dropout recovery school, students at YouthBuild often suffer from learning disabilities, circumstances surrounding violence and issues that can be correlated to exposure to lead, he pointed out DTSC expects to have cleaned up 250 homes by June, using funds previously obtained from Exide and the state. The agency is waiting on the results of a still to be conducted environmental impact report before it continues with the cleanup of 2,500 additional homes, hopefully beginning sometime next spring.

Over 40 eastside residents have already been trained and certified to operate the XRF devices being used to sample soil on properties near Exide.

DTSC says it wants to have hundreds of local residents trained and ready to start when remediation, which could take at last two years, gets underway. Soil testing will continue in the meantime, Mascarenas said.

The Exide plant was permanently closed March 2015 after operating for decades on a temporary permit, even after repeatedly being found to have exposed more than 100,000 people to dangerous levels of lead, arsenic and other chemicals and collecting dozens of hazardous waste violations.

“In many ways, this will help to remediate the damage done to the community,” acknowledges Lopez.

Railway Offering $5,000 Reward in Commerce Vandalism Case

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

BNSF Railway is offering a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person responsible for vandalism on BNSF property.

At approximately 7:15 p.m. on April 12, a suspect was seen vandalizing BNSF property, in the 2500 block of S. Atlantic Blvd. in Commerce, according the company’s reward announcement.

The suspect was caught on videotape, and is described as white female between 23-25 years old, 5’, 3” with brown hair and hazel eyes. She was wearing a black tank top and green paints, and had tattoo writing on her right shoulder.

Trespassing on railroad property is against federal and state law, BNSF said in written statement.  Tampering with or destroying railroad property is not only illegal, but dangerous, the company added.

Persons with information should contact the BNSF Crime Tip Hotline at 800-832-5452.

Huntington Park Police Shoot, Wound Man In Commerce

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Huntington Park police officers on surveillance shot and wounded a man in Commerce when he approached their unmarked car, pulled a handgun from his waistband and pointed it at an officer, authorities said April 15.

The officer involved shooting took place at 9:45 p.m. Friday, in the 2500 block of Leo Avenue, according to Deputy Lisa Jansen.

“Two Huntington Park police officers were conducting a surveillance at the location regarding a past murder that occurred in the city of Huntington Park,” Jansen said.

Both officers were sitting in an unmarked car when a suspect not related to the surveillance “approached the vehicle on the driver’s door and retrieved a handgun from his waistband. The officer on the driver’s side lowered the window as both officers identified themselves as police officers,” she said.

“Both officers fired their weapons at the suspect striking him multiple times in the upper torso,” Jansen said. His handgun was retrieved at the scene.

The suspect was taken to a hospital where he was listed in fair condition, Jansen said.

Sheriff’s homicide detectives were assisting Huntington Park police with the investigation, she added.

Commerce Council Must Follow CEQA

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

As one of the State’s most impacted environmental justice areas, Commerce has suffered the brunt of cumulative impacts of heavy manufacturing in conjunction with decades of pollution from truck and train traffic.

These impacts have a chilling public health legacy measured in high incidences of respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular disease, cancer and countless other chronic conditions. Every resident knows someone who has suffered from these conditions.

The Bandini neighborhood is now in the unlikely position of receiving some small measure of relief thanks to the long overdue cleanup of contamination from the Exide lead battery recycling plant.

Ironically, this relief comes seemingly just in time to coincide with a proposed Walmart center which will bring additional truck traffic, pollution and traffic safety issues on a busy arterial street and the likely loss of nearby homes due to the I-710 Expansion Project.

The City cannot ignore or override CEQA consideration to address these significant impacts.

In fact, as currently proposed, the City is on the hook to pick up most of the costs to install an unproven traffic control system to mitigate some of these safety issues. That Walmart would pay only 3% of this cost equates to corporate welfare for a company whose business practices force a significant portion of their workforce to seek public assistance in order to make ends meet. In effect, the proposed Commerce Walmart will be ripping off taxpayers twice.

In addition, the property is contaminated with volatile organic compounds. After the Exide debacle, the public deserves to know how the community’s health will be protected.

Furthermore, Walmart has proven to be an untrustworthy business partner to cities across the United States. Washington D.C. spent $90 million to make a similar project viable only to have Walmart pull the plug and stick taxpayers with the bill. “I’m blood mad,” said D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser.

Closer to home the Walmart store in Pico Rivera closed abruptly for eight months last year due to alleged plumbing issues without notice. With this unprecedented action, Walmart put approximately 500 people out of work and caused the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue to the City of Pico Rivera. According to a published news report in the LA Times, this action caught the city administrator and mayor of Pico Rivera by complete surprise.

Add to that the recent closures of stores across the country including the one in our neighboring City of Bell Gardens, it paints a clear picture of Walmart’s “here today gone tomorrow” business practices that leave in its wake blighted urban sprawl, lost revenue and in Commerce’s case the distinct possibility of Bandini residents losing their homes.

Finally, it is of note that large groups of people have been bused in from outside of the community to the last two Planning Commission Meetings wearing yellow shirts touting “More Jobs for Commerce.” While it is uncertain who was footing the bill for this effort two things are clear. The first is that someone stands to gain financially. The second is that this deliberate effort to create the perception of support for the project and mislead residents is an insult to this community.

Commerce was founded as “The Model City.” I believe that standard still matters in what we do to improve our community. Based on the way this corporate giant destroys small businesses, mistreats their workers and exploits cities like Bell Gardens, Pico Rivera and now Commerce for profit at any cost, Walmart does not meet that standard.

Jason Gardea-Stinnett is a Commerce resident and former Commerce Public Information Officer.

Commerce: Where Interest and Opportunity Meet

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Walmart is always looking for opportunities to better serve our customers in the Southern California region. We give a great deal of thought in selecting our locations and there are many factors that weigh in our decisions. The City of Commerce is an attractive location with its business friendly environment and close proximity to many of the local manufacturers and distributors we work with daily. In fact, last year alone Walmart purchased more than $219 million worth of goods and services from Commerce suppliers. Perhaps most importantly though is that a Walmart in Commerce would provide the community with convenient access to fresh, affordable groceries, pharmacy services, and a broad assortment of general merchandise.

A Walmart in Commerce will also bring local job growth and economic revitalization. The new store will create approximately 300 new jobs that provide competitive pay, benefits including paid time off and much more, as well as opportunities for advancement. A Walmart in Commerce would keep sales tax revenue in the city to help support important community services like the city’s after-school park program, libraries, and public safety services.

Currently, the best opportunity for a Walmart in Commerce is at the proposed retail center at the corner of Washington and Atlantic Boulevards. This particular area is well positioned for revitalization and that is why the proposed Commerce Retail Center project is now moving its way through the public approval process. It won’t come easy as the site is mostly industrial use now and will require environmental clean-up but it is an area in need of a plan and there are interested parties ready to invest in a transformation.

A great example of a former industrial area revitalization that we’ve been part of is South Gate. Our South Gate Walmart has been a major anchor in the thriving Azalea Shopping Center for about two years. According to a recent South Gate city staff memo the Azalea Shopping Center generated approximately $2.6 million in sales tax revenue for the 2014-15 fiscal year, its first year in existence. Previously, there had been virtually no sales tax reported for

that location. The best part is that South Gate’s nearby Tweedy Mile business district also grew during this time increasing their sales tax revenue significantly. This is exactly the kind of direct and indirect economic development we know is possible in Commerce.

We join with local residents who would like to see the corner of Washington and Atlantic Boulevards transformed into a robust commercial center that contributes to the economic vitality of the city.

That’s why we support the plan for the Commerce Retail Center and are working to raise awareness of the possibilities for this location, including a future Walmart Supercenter as the anchor tenant.
So, yes, Walmart is interested in the City of Commerce and we believe this is the right project at the right time in the right place. We are excited about a future serving this great city, its residents and visitors.

Chad Donath is Regional Vice President of Walmart.

Gov. Brown Signs Legislation to Fund Exide Clean-Up

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation today providing $176.6 million in funding for environmental testing and cleanup work in neighborhoods surrounding the now-shuttered Exide Technologies battery-recycling plant in Vernon.

“Children should be able to play in yards free from toxics,” Brown said. “With this funding plan, we’re doubling down on efforts to protect the community and hold Exide responsible.”

State officials said the funding would pay for testing of residential properties, schools, day care centers and parks within a 1.7-mile radius of the plant, and fund cleaning of as many as 2,500 properties with the highest lead levels.

There was no immediate word on when the effort would begin or how long it would take. The cleanup effort is subject to an environmental review under the California Environmental Quality Act.

Assembly Majority Whip Miguel Santiago applauded Gov. Brown for signing the Exide Clean-Up Package comprised of Assembly Bill 118 and Senate Bill 93.

“The Exide Technologies facility has been able to pollute my community unabated for more than 33 years, which is entirely inexcusable,” said Santiago, author of AB 118.

“Today’s action is an historic step toward fully resolving this appalling situation; but make no mistake – our work is not done here.”

The Exide plant permanently closed in March 2015. When Exide agreed to close the lead-acid battery recycling plant, it committed to pay $50 million for cleanup of the site and surrounding neighborhoods. Of that amount, $26 million is meant to be set aside for residential cleanup.

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

A crew from the Department of Toxic Substances Control cleans a home in East Los Angeles Wednesday. (Department of Toxic Substances Control)

As of last August, Exide, which filed for bankruptcy in 2013, had paid $9 million into a trust and another $5 million was due to be paid by March 2020, according to state officials.

Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Los Angeles, called for a fast start to the state’s cleanup efforts.

“We’ve heard the distressing news recently that children living near the closed Exide plant had elevated blood lead levels so there’s no time to waste,” he said. “… I will continue working closely with state and local partners so that the testing and cleanup of homes moves forward expeditiously
and above all, in partnership with the families impacted by the lead contamination. We shouldn’t lose focus of what’s at stake here – restoring a clean and safe environment for our families.”

Mayor Eric Garcetti released a Spanish-language public service announcement, also featuring actress Angelica Vale, urging residents near the plant to have their property tested, and to undergo blood-lead level testing.

“My office will do everything possible to help the (Department of Toxic Substances Control) expedite the cleanup,” Garcetti said. “Identifying the areas and the people affected by lead contamination is a critical first step.”

The city of Commerce, in conjunction with the County health department, will be conducting free confidential lead blood testing at Rosewood Park from 9a.m. to 3p.m. during the annual Kids Are Cute Baby Show. The park is located at 5600 Harbor St. Commerce 90040. For more information, call (323) 722-4805.

EGP staff writers contributed to this report.

Suspect In Commerce Murder Extradited from Mexico

April 21, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

The Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday that a man suspected of killing a rival gang member has been extradited from Mexico and arraigned in Los Angeles in connection with the September 2015 shooting death of a 25-year-old man in Commerce.

Robert Becerra, 20 was involved in a verbal dispute with his girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend and father of her child. The argument eroded into a fight, which ended when Becerra shot Ernest Ramos several times in the chest, according to Lt. Joe Mendoza of the sheriff’s Homicide Bureau.

The investigation into the shooting death began Sept. 15, 2015, when sheriff’s homicide detectives responded to the 5100 block of Astor Avenue to investigate the circumstances surrounding the shooting death of Ramos, Mendoza said.

After the shooting Becerra fled in a vehicle that was last seen driving southbound away from the scene, and during the investigation sheriff’s detectives learned that he fled the United States into Mexico, he said.

“With the culmination of communication, effort and cooperation between agencies, the operation to locate Suspect Becerra was successful and he was detained by Mexican law enforcement personnel,” Mendoza said.

Sheriff’s detectives coordinated with agents from the San Ysidro Marshal’s Office and the FBI to take Becerra into custody. He was returned to Los Angeles County on Friday and transported to the LAPD’s Metropolitan Detention Center, where he was booked on suspicion of murder, he said.
Becerra was being held without bail and faced arraignment Monday at the Central County Courthouse, he said.

Sheriff’s homicide detectives asked anyone with any information regarding the Sept. 15, 2015 shooting death to call the Sheriff’s Information Bureau at (213) 229-1700.

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